Saturday, January 25, 2014

All the Sweetest Winds, They Blow Across the South

One question a few of my beta readers have asked about Tallyho in the Squat is whether or not Bill Gulledge is supposed to be me. While Bill shares some similarities to some details and events in my life, he's not intended to be a younger version of myself. In fact, there are times when I see more of me in Jimbo, particularly with our shared propensity to imbibe too much.

But Bill and I do share the distinction of having smuggled rabbits in 2009 from Somerset to Spartanburg when times got tough. To help make some ends meet for the family, my father hired me to bring back wild cottontails from a supplier in the small Kentucky town. It should be noted that my father is not like Buck Gulledge at all: he's not a millionaire, he's not a redneck, and he's got a firm grasp on his temperament. That, and my father and I have a much more amicable relationship than Bill and Buck.

But my father and Buck shared one similarity: neither could explain what was so special about Kentucky rabbits. Since he paid me to make the trip, however, I did not question the logic.

I made the trip to Kentucky several times that summer, and I did it solo. It would have been nice to have a Jimbo riding shotgun with me, but instead, I had just the radio and my iPod. As Bill laments in the novel, there are spots on I-40 in Tennessee where your radio choices boil down to either the fire and brimstone word of the Lord or Rush Limbaugh. I spent most of the time piping James McMurtry through my iPod tape adapter (great traveling Americana music).

Once in Somerset, I could not sequester myself in the hotel for the whole night. I had to sniff out a good bar, and I found one in Sully's. The watering hole served somewhat as inspiration for Catahoula's Saloon, albeit it lacked the larger, rowdy crowd of the latter. And dance routines by the staff. And a bartender like Rye Cotton. Although one cute bartender delved out free shots of Patron one night ala Rye style.

The people of Somerset are quite friendly, and they were quite inquisitive as well about my business in their small town. Usually after I explained my rabbit smuggling mission, they would smile and say, "Seriously, why are you really here?" A couple of years later, I came up with the sasquatch hunter story that Jimbo lays on Skeezy early in the novel.

To be fair to the town of Somerset, it's not a "shithole" as Rye describes it in the book. It models many small Southern towns: a quaint historical downtown area filled with local flavor, and then a sprawling highway that brings in the newer commercialized feel. On the outskirts, horse pastures are abound and a recreational lake. I often left Somerset disappointed that I could only spend 14 or 15 hours there each trip.

I do not know if any author has ever used the town of Somerset in a novel before. I hope I am the first. Jimbo describes the town as Spartanburg's "younger, looser sister". In reality, I would say Somerset is more like that cousin who lives far away who, given the chance, would be a lot of fun to hang out with if you had the time to travel. Hopefully I can make my way up there again.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

In Vino Veritas

The cliché statement for an author's inspiration is "write what you know." My favorite living author, Stephen King, takes a different spin on that in his book, On Writing (which, if you have any aspirations to be a writer, this book is an essential for your collection): King advises to write what's real. Is it believable? Could you actually see this scenario play out in the world the author has created?

And that's the advice I took when I wrote Tallyho in the Squat. It is crucial that an author write what he or she knows, but a lot of what isn't known can be made up for with research and sticking to what's believable. Despite the growing bourgeois cultural and progressive renaissance in many Southern cities, the down home, old timey redneck side still intertwines in the culture, refusing to relinquish its NASCAR and made-from-scratch biscuits unless pried from its cold, dead fingers. That's the side I wanted to capture in my book.

Haivng been born and raised in Spartanburg, SC, I could write what I knew while also writing what is real. There are plenty of Jimbos, Bucks, and Aunt Sissys still to be found in the nooks and crannies of Upstate South Carolina. There are plenty of Bills, too: educated Southerners who put on airs of intellectualism yet still cling to their Budweiser and camo. From there I could expand it to Somerset, KY, a town I spent some time in during the summer of 2009 doing exactly what Bill and Jimbo did: smuggling rabbits across state lines. To my knowledge, it is the only federal crime I have ever committed, although some of my actions on a few Spring Breaks are still hazy.

I found Somerset to be a prototypical small Southern town: set in tradition and full of loyal locals passionate about its existence, yet at the same time trying to make waves in the name of progression. I drank with several of those locals, most of them disbelieving that I had visited their town to bring back wild rabbits to Spartanburg. There were times I wished I had concocted a story for them, just as Jimbo did when he claimed he and Bill were sasquatch hunters for the federal government.

From there, I combined a few other items of familiarity: my own English degree, our family's troubles in the 2009 economy, raising Beagles, field trials, wild nights after a few too many beers, and a host of other stories and experiences from my life. Write what's real, King said. There are times when Tallyho in the Squat seems outlandish, but rest assured, somewhere in that incredibility lies at least an inkling of truth. The Southern life does not suffer the humdrum greatly.

King also warns, "If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered."

Tallyho in the Squat is certainly not a children's or young adult book, and writing about such a lifestyle can be somewhat crude. There were times even I paused after writing a sentence (such as Jimbo's untimely ode to Moby Dick in mid coitus) and said, "Wow... that might be a bit much for readers." But again, I revert back to King's advice. Would Jimbo behave in such a way? He most certainly would, and to expect anything less is to cheat the readers who have grown to know him.

We all have a Bill, Rye, Jimbo, Buck, Aunt Sissy, or even a Skeezy in our lives. Perhaps those people embarrass us or make us avoid their company. But when they're at their finest, like rubber neckers on the Interstate after a wreck, we love to watch.