The New South at the SFoB

44028525Another dispatch from the Southern Festival of Books…

One of my favorite sessions from the Festival was Saturday’s panel with Madison Smartt Bell, Kevin Wilson and Jill McCorkle.

Bell is the editor of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best (2009), an annual anthology of short fiction. Wilson and McCorkle both have stories in the collection. (And lucky for us, both stories are printed in their entirety online — see links below.)

McCorkle read an excerpt from “Magic Words,” originally published in the fall 2008 edition of Narrative.

I loved hearing some back story behind McCorkle’s process; specifically, how she chooses subjects for her fiction and why she’s defined as a “Southern writer.” McCorkle said that she constantly carries with her an “ongoing collection of ideas.” When she decides to sit down and write depends on how much time she’s spent “walking around and thinking” about a character or situation.

Originally from North Carolina, McCorkle said that “the setting of a small Southern town comes right out of reality.” She continued, “Sometimes a place holds all the other pieces together.”

Wilson read from “No Joke, This is Going to be Painful,” originally published in Tin House.

As Bell said in the session, Wilson’s story “breaks taboo”; he writes across gender (his first-person narrator is female). Originally from Winchester, TN, Wilson explained that his characters operate in a small town in Tennessee because that’s what he knows.

Both McCorkle and Wilson were at their funniest while talking about student writing. (McCorkle teaches at NC State; Wilson teaches at Sewanee.)

Students run into trouble, according to McCorkle, when they don’t “put a pulse in that body.” Lately, she said, she’s seen far too many “fairies and vampires” rather than living, emotional (human) characters with real stories to tell.

At the beginning of the session, Bell spent a few minutes talking about the different generations of Southern writers – from the Fugitives to the present. What has changed the most, he said, is the “rootedness of Southern writers.” Bell, for example, was born in Tennessee, but he has lived in New York and now teaches in Baltimore.

McCorkle described her childhood in Lumberton, North Carolina, a town home to I-95. Growing up, McCorkle was struck by the thought of the highway connecting “New York and North Carolina.” Thus, the highway image often shows up in her work.

“What’s different about the New South is that it’s no longer a place of total alienation,” she said. “We have the freedom to get on that highway and go.”

I have yet to get my hands on New Stories from the South. Do any readers have a favorite story from the collection? For any fiction writers out there: Do you, like McCorkle and Wilson, place your characters in the region of your childhood? Are people “Southern” writers because their settings are Southern?

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