Monday, August 24, 2009

Southern Voices

I've got the South on my mind . . . the southern states of the USA, that is . . . and I wonder . . .

What do you think of when you think about the South? . . .

A shy pink camellia?

Sweet iced tea with lemon and mint?

Good old boys enjoying the evening on the front porch?

The seductive scent of a creamy magnolia?

A great Live Oak, hung with Spanish moss and spreading its leafy arms across a small town square?

Or maybe tractor caps, proclaiming long-held loyalties?

All this is on my mind because I've just received my panel assignment for Bouchercon - "SOUTHERN VOICES: What's special about Southern mysteries?"

The panel is composed of Cathy Pickens, (who writes a down home series about upstate South Carolina,) Deborah Sharp (setting: the part of Florida natives call the real Florida,) T. Lynn Ocean (coastal Carolina, Wilmington,) A. Scott Pearson (Memphis, TN,) and me.

That's a lot of different Souths. I'm trying to figure out what the commonalities are -- not gators, nor old plantations, nor log cabins, nor Elvis. Well, maybe Elvis. Maybe biscuits and gravy.

But special? What's a key element in Southern fiction -- in Southern mysteries? I have some vague, half-formulated ideas having to do with the Scots-Irish and story-telling and maybe even a tad of alienation resulting from the Late Unpleasantness, as John's Aunt Barbara called the Civil War.

So I'm asking, do you think there's anything special about Southern mysteries or Southern fiction in general?

(Let's hope so -- it'll be a long, awkward fifty-five minute panel otherwise.)

Help me out here, folks! And for those of you blog readers in other countries, I'd be really interested to know if you have any notion of the American South as being any different from the rest of the US -- any stereotypes, etc.

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Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hooray for your B'Con panel session! I'll be there!
Vickie - I hate being vague about this, but I'm thinking we southerners just "know" southern when we see/hear/live it, but I don't think I can put it into words without it sounding like a cliche.
But I also know that I surely do know when someone's writing it badly.

KarenB said...

I'm so sorry I won't be at B'con this year - it was so much fun last year! Last year there was a panel on Southern writers which I attended and took a lot of notes to post for the folks on Laurie R. King's virtual book club. Some of the bits I remember was a discussion about the different Souths - that the coast, Savannah, Charleston, etc., was a very different place from the mountain South. The sense of place, the importance of family - who your people are - are all important in southern literature. If you would like, I could send you the file of the notes I took.

Tammy said...

Hi Vicki,
When I think of the south I think of....Kudzu! J/k...mostly. really is hard to put into words. I think that when I think of the south, it's similar to the old timers around here.. Hard workers, clannish at times, very, very physically tough, strong family ties...Deep pockets of woodlands, with small hardscrabble farms. I guess I'm thinking more rural, not your gentrified southerners. Since I've only 'been' south once in my life, my experience is only through books. I do remember the swamps and spanish moss on the live oaks though!

Anonymous said...

the sound of cicadas on a hot summer day, energy sucking humidity, Wednesday night church potlucks, the food - fried chicken, green beans, lima beans and cabbage cooked to death with a piece of fatback, a good bluegrass band, the twang in the voices, southern gentlemen and good manners, the sense of history that underlies everything, family - being identified by your family name, the kinship of family - all the cousins, upteen times removed, the "come-heres" that have been here over fifty years, those yankee girls like my mother who stole away the southern boy's heart, just so many little things that combine together to make up "southern".

Vicki Lane said...

Kaye, you make me think of the judge who said he couldn't exactly define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. :-)

Karen,I bet that was the panel I was on last year. There's a picture here

This years panel is more or less the same topic, different moderator and some different writers.

I'm sorry too that you won't be there!

Tammy,you're on the money with the clannish, hard-working, rural folks. And, I think the big oaks and Spanish moss -- though we don't have those here in the mountains -- they're a Deep South thing.

Thanks, all of you! This is so helpful!

Vicki Lane said...

Oh, lordy, Anonymous! That was eloquent! Thank you so much! (Who are you? And where are you?)

Anonymous said...

I come from a long line of people from the TN-NC-KY south and what I love about Southern writing is the at once familiar and strange quality about it. Every time I pass a cinder block bar at the edge of a woods I think of Larry Brown's Fay and Joe. Thankfully I know nothing of this world in reality but I know it when I read it. Same goes for the beachy south- the big white house south etc.., again worlds not mine but those I recognize and enjoy reading about.

Vicki Lane said...

Again, Anonymous, well-put. Familiar and strange at once -- I know what you mean!

estaminet said...

I think things like biscuits and sweet tea are the external benefits of Southern culture, but not the thing itself. It seems to me that a truly unifying feature of being Southern is a deep love of location and customs -- a pride of identity -- that is very defensive. Southerners get stereotyped negatively a lot. How many of us know people who trained themselves out of their accents so they wouldn't appear stupid? Plus, a lot of the world associates Southerners merely with racist Civil War holdouts (not that they don't exist, dagnabbit). We're constantly explaining ourselves and our home-identity in light of those stereotypes. It creates a sense of tribalism.

Of course, the tea and biscuits are great too. I was never so shocked as the first time I went to Seattle (in my early 20's) and realized you couldn't order a biscuit with breakfast ANYWHERE.

KarenB said...

Yes, looking back it was the panel you were on, Vicki. I do remember the very humorous digression of the use of "bless your heart," as in "he's a sweet boy, but if brains were dynamite he wouldn't have enough to ruffle his hair, bless his heart."

And, I doubt you saw me, but I did wave in your direction Saturday on my way from Knoxville to Spartanburg!

Vicki Lane said...

Very thoughtful and right on, estaminet. Defensive pride of identity -- I see that. Thanks.

Karen -- You didn't see me waving back?

Re 'bless his heart', my sister-in-law from upstate NY, uses 'God love him' in exactly the same way.

Nancy M. said...

Vickie, the comments you've received have been wonderful - and I can identify with them. I take such delight in being able to quickly identify a true Southerner when I meet them - honest, loyal, hard working, but always a lady or gentleman (the "bless their heart" type). And you really can't get tea too sweet although the tea served at Elvis Presley's restaurant on Beale Street in Memphis (now closed)came awfully close!!! I love Southern mysteries - and Kaye's right - we always know when one's written badly.....

Sandra Parshall said...

The food is definitely a marker of true Southern-ness. When a Southerner asks if you'd like some tea, don't expect it to come hot in a cup. Southerners routinely eat things that many from outside the region refuse to touch -- grits, fried okra, cornbread or biscuits with supper. When TV and the internet have finally blended the whole country into one homogeneous (and boring) mass of Americans, I believe Southerners will still be distinguished by our food.

Bo Parker said...

What’s the Southern voice? May I suggest it is a theme that runs as a common thread through such diverse offerings as Gone With the Wind, Deliverance, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Prince of Tides, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the portrayal of the Southerners’ ability to accept life as it comes, good or bad, and persevere, to move ahead and do what has to be done, to do the right thing.
But is this portrayal a true reflection of Southern culture, or a myth that has been developed and passed along on the pages of fiction? Many reviews of Southern books and film contain the word, “reality.” That has always left me with the question, “Reality as it is in the South, or reality as it has been portrayed?”
If panel discussions are recorded, I would love to hear what was said on this subject.

Gwen said...

I'm the 10:05a.m. anonymous. My name is Gwen, I'm 58 and I live in Hampton, Virginia, actually a fairly urban area with one or two small pockets of fast disappearing rural areas. I grew up here and remember Hampton when it was still a small town surrounded by farm land. I also went to college at Virginia Tech, totally rural and between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. My roommate was from a small coal mining town and still had no indoor plumbing, a wood stove to cook on in the kitchen and no heat at night. I totally fell in love with the mountains and I love looking at all your photos - they remind me so much of my college days.

Deborah Sharp said...

Hey, there ... I'll have the pleasure of being one of Vicki's panel-mates on this wonderful panel. Hope my Southern voice will seem authentic, even tho' as all Southerners know, the further south you go in my home state of Florida, the more Northern you get (and I'm waaaaay down on the map, in Ft. Lauderdale). But when my daddy grew up, this slice of Fla. was still very much the South. He drank sweet tea by the gallon and said ''Miam-uh'' and ''herr-i-cane.''
I think family defines the south, and that intricate, individual chain of who your people are and where they came from.

Vicki Lane said...

Nancy -- these are indeed great comments! I'm loving hearing from folks. Sweet tea -- the house wine of the South. (I blush to say I prefer mine unsweetened and I prefer wine with the evening meal, whether it's called dinner or supper.)

Sandra -- I think you're right. I cook all sorts of ways -- Spanish, French, Cuban, Asian -- but I don't, by golly, forget my roots. Fried chicken and gravy, fried pork chops, barbecued ribs, sweet potatoes, cornbread, cheese grits, fried catfish, collard greens, blackeyed peas -- these all make their appearance at our table. I treasure my family recipes and make sure to get them out and exercise them now and then.

Bo -- the 'tomorrow is another day thing?' Yes, I can see that. Thpough I suspect that it holds true for hard-working, especially rural folks all over the country. And the question of myth vs. reality is wonderful. I suspect that sometimes we work to live up to the myths.

I don't know if they record the panel sessions -- I'll try to take notes and blog about it afterwards.

Gwen -- So that's who you are! These mountains are easy to fall in love with. When we moved here in '75, the folks we bought our land from were as you describe -- no indoor plumbing, electricity still fairly new, first truck bought in the Sixties. We fell in love too.

Vicki Lane said...

Hey, Deborah, Thanks for chiming in. Being from Florida myself, I'm always at pains to explain that there really is a Southern Florida -- the Cracker culture is where my daddy's people came from and it has major similarities to the western NC culture -- Scots-Irish, all of 'em.

These folks are giving me lots of talking points. I'm taking notes to be ready for our panel. See you then!

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Hooray - what a wonderful discussion this is!

I too was at the B'Con panel you were on last year Vicki and thought it was one of the best.

Remember Cathy Pickens' comments about knowing what southerners are saying and asking not necessarily by WHAT they say, but HOW they say it? Like - "could you pass the biscuits?" Meaning really - "you're hogging the biscuits,honey - give 'em up!"

Cracked me up!!!

I am SO glad they're doing this panel again this year.

and oh man - Anonymous? Your comment is indeed, as Vickie said, ever so eloquent!!!

and I have to agree with Sandy - food is a definite highlight in the life of a southerner.

and the "Steel Magnolia" thing? I have to say, I think it is alive and well in the south.

Vicki Lane said...

Kaye -- Cathy is our moderator this year and I know it's going to be a fun panel.

Miss_Yves said...

An interesting subject!But my own knowledges are reduced to literature, movies and songs !
I'll read the answers to discover something else !

estaminet said...

Oh my gosh, Kaye Barley -- my grandmother in WNC did that! She would never, EVER directly ask for something to be passed to her at the table. If no one took her hint ("Wouldn't you like some more sausage?") she'd just not eat any more. My dad and his brother used to ignore her hints on purpose to rile her up! I thought this was just my family!

Vicki Lane said...

Miss Yves -- and that's what I wonder -- what impression of the American South would someone have - whose only knowledge of the area was from movies, songs, and literature?

estaminet - My late mother-in-law (bless her heart) would never ask for a refill of her drink. She would however rattle the ice cubes in her glass till someone took care of the problem.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

The south knows a bit about "passive aggressive" behavior.

just saying . . . .

Merisi said...

South of the Mason-Dixon Line:
Sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch in the evening, sipping mint julep and watch the world go by. A quarter century of living south of the M-D Line, and this image is still the first that comes to mind when thinking about the South.

Vicki Lane said...

Kaye -- don't we just!

Merisi -- Girl! You get all the good assignments! Twenty five years of mint juleps on the front porch and now it's melanges in Viennese cafes. Rough jobs but somebody has to do it, no? ;-)

Helen in SC said...

Vicki, as a lifelong South Carolinian all I know of life is Southern, and I'm not always pleased with us. My best memories, though, are the smell of cured tobacco, shelling peas on the porch, and listening to stories of family. You and Sharyn McCrumb are my favorite Southern writers, and to me what you have in common that touches Southern life is honor for the past, the great storytelling, the good old-fashioned ghost story, and our inborn politeness. Whatever people think of us, we do know how to say Sir and Ma'am.

Vicki Lane said...

Oh my, Helen! I always swell with pride when anyone mentions me and Sharyn in the same sentence.

'Not always pleased with us' describes my sentiments also -- but there's so much here that is sweet and good and true.

I am loving the response to this post -- lots of thoughtful, deeply felt comments. Thanks everyone -- but don't feel that the conversation has to be over.

Merisi said...

I love the South,
and I know that it is all and more than your readers here have mentioned already and that my mental image of front porches and rocking chairs and mint juleps is a cliché - still, it is as if that frosted pewter cup can hold all that and more.
My friends back in my old home break out in laughter every time I mention "mint julep" - it's a running joke, me and drinking MJ, or better, not ever drinking it. ;-)

Vicki Lane said...

Hi, Merisi -- It's a cliche, but a nice one. For a certain area of the South. Of course when I ask a question like this I know I'm going to hear cliches and stereotypes but it's interesting to hear what they are.

As for mint juleps. I've never cared for them either -- too sweet and also I don't like bourbon. Myself, I'm more of a gin and tonic sort of front porch sipper.

Vicki Lane said...

I'm posting here in the comments a copy of what Gayle Surrette mailed me -- a slightly different take that I thought added to the conversation. Gayle said:

For me, it's the cultural/social customs of the characters as they solve the mystery by living in their environment.

I'm originally from New England, and while NE has a similar small town feel, the people are a bit more standoffish, not because they're not welcoming but because
they don't want to intrude. There's a great tendency to leave people alone unless asked. However, that doesn't mean they don't watch their neighbors and help out but they do it almost's anonymous assistance.

(For example, I still don't know who plowed my driveway when I lived as a single parent in a trailer park. I'd shovel a bit to get my car out and go to work or wherever and come home to find the driveway completely plowed out.)

In many Southern mysteries, if anything bad happens in a small town the people gather around and stop in and bring things...mostly to be on hand for the gossip but it's a much more get directly involved in everyone's
life kind of culture.

Or at least that's the way I see it. Probably why I really like the small town Southern mystery cozies.



Anonymous said...

One of the things I notice about our Appalachian South is the derelict houses, empty for years because the heirs don't want to or can't live on the land any more but can't let it go. And the pride of the folks who still live on the land that their family has had for eight or ten generations, even if it's just a small scrap of the original hundred acre parcel. There's really something in these mountains that gets into the blood and the heart, even of us newcomers.

Vicki Lane said...

Oh yes, we have several nearby. Sometimes it's because there are lots of heirs and they can't agree. But usually it's because no one wants to see the 'old home place' pass into other hands.

There's one such, almost at the top of Troublesome Gap, that has been added on to by several generations but was standing empty and long abandoned the last time I passed that way. So full of stories . . .