Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Carolyn Haines: Writing Away from Yoknapatawpha County

Jungle Red is pleased to welcome a kindred spirit. While Carolyn Haines may be steeped in sweet tea and magnolias rather than Moxie and lilac, she can write with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Carolyn is the Original Mississippi Delta Mystery Author, perhaps best known for her long-running, popular Sarah Booth Delaney series, the epitome of the Southern cozy. Yet she finds the time to fashion tremendous literary fiction as well. Carolyn is the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Distinguished Writer of the Year. Her list of books in print and awards is too long for this space, so we encourage you to visit to learn more.

y blog begins with a confession. I have trouble sleeping. Not an uncommon complaint for people my age. Especially busy people. The insomnia kicks in at the strangest times—and with the wildest anxieties.

This morning, I work up in a lather about the state of Southern stories. The books I love, the writers I adore, and the characters I carry in my heart all come for the rural South. Not big city Atlanta. Not sprawling Houston. But Athena, Mississippi. Or New Iberia, Louisiana. Sometimes the authors live in big cities, but they grew up in the rural South and they generally write about small towns or a place no bigger than a crossroads.

So why has this upset me? Because the students I teach today have no real connection to anything rural. They are of a generation that even their grandparents (I thought it was a law that grandparents had to live in a small town or on a farm!) have grown up and retired to subdivisions, patio homes, or, god forbid, an apartment. I actually had one student who did not have a clue what the interior of a barn might hold. I almost wept.

That is not to say that I am a defender of all things rural. Ignorance and isolation can breed up some nasty children. (Though the crowded projects of big cities are equally guilty of such.) For example, I just finished a book by a Maine writer, a tale about a game warden in the rural reaches of his craggy state. He proved my point that the worst traits and characteristics often associated with the South are not a matter of region, but more a matter of isolation and lack of education (willful ignorance). In other words—the worst of rural. Isolated Maine is not that very different from the horrors one can find down a red dirt road in rural Alabama or Mississippi.

But what I love is the best of rural life. A place where men and women still abide by an older code of conduct. One that requires manners and integrity, a willingness to protect those weaker than they are. When I was a child growing up, I could ride my bicycle anywhere in George County without worry or concern that someone might try to harm me. I had a freedom that children today can’t conceive of. I met hermits who fished the Pascagoula River, and old women who dipped snuff and quilted in their front yards on sunny days. Characters who picked up glass bottles and melted them into art. Fortune tellers, bee keepers, religious fanatics, and armers. Grist for my fiction mill now. Everyone in the county knew my parents. And I suspect they were terrified to even think of harming me. My mother would have eaten them alive. That is not an exaggeration.

Today, kids only play “organized” ball. No backyard games without referees. We settled our own differences, and it was good for us. An “outing” is a trip to the mall or some other concrete and air-conditioned hell. There is no sense of community, no idea that the people one meets in first grade will be contemporaries for the rest of a person’s life. I have friends I met at the age of five. We are still as close as sisters. They are extended family, and because they’ve known me for decades, they have a clear and unobstructed view of who I am. There is no fooling them with a new haircut or a carefully constructed persona. They know me to the bone. And they hold me accountable.

So I woke up this morning mourning the loss of this kind of “knowing” of a place and a people. These children who grow up in perfectly manicured subdivisions without dewberry briars or wild plums, what will they write about? How will they connect to and reflect this over-heated, humid land that I love so much? How will they serve future generations of readers if they don’t understand the complex relationship of human and nature?—because they have lost touch with the natural world. I contend that Faulkner nor Welty could have written with the power they harnessed if they’d been children of a concrete world. It was a love of land and the power of the natural world that drove them to share their stories with the world.

It’s getting close to noon now, and I must turn to writing the next Bones book. I will write about my characters who are best friends from childhood and who have an abiding love for the soil and landscape. With Sarah Booth, Tinkie, Jitty, Cece and the rest, I can sink into the safety net of a fictional town where cotton is still king and where best friends mean a lifetime commitment. It is a world I know from personal experience, but one that I see fading quickly from the consciousness of those who will come after me.

A native of Mississippi, Carolyn now lives in Alabama on a farm with her dogs, horses, & cats. Bones of a Feather, the 11th book in her Sarah Booth Delaney series, releases on June 21. Sign up for Carolyn's Newsletter & feel free to visit her Website, along with her Facebook, Twitter, & Fan Page. Do yourself a favor, and learn more about this terrific writer!


  1. Hi Carolyn, it's so nice to see you here on Jungle Red! What a lovely essay. If you get a chance, will you tell us a little more about the trends you see in your students' writing?

  2. Carolyn, you are thoughtful and brilliant..

    I think about his, often, when I wonder about my grandson Eli. I worry that his parents--adorable and perfect as they are--wont teach him important stuff, like how to choose a tomato, or that you can cook by making stuff up, the lyrics to folk songs and show tunes..and old movies and oh, I don't know.

    That all the stuff he learns is NEW, you know?

  3. Were we the last generation who could ramble through the woods to explore abandoned shacks, fish hidden streams, even talk to strangers? Walk anywhere and everywhere? Our parents had no clue where we were or what we were doing, but somehow we came home safely every day.

    Yet even as we move away from the idyllic past, our readers harbor a real nostalgia for it--the small community where everyone knows you and your history, and more important, looks out for you. You find that in the south; I tap into it for New England.

    Thank you for a lovely post.

  4. Hi Carolyn,
    Welcome to Jungle Red! I really love to hear you talking in person and I could just hear your voice in that delightful essay.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. And it is good to reconnect with those of you I actually know.

    As to the students, many are focused on the world of magic and supernatural. Not surprisingly, I have a few physics majors who write hard sci-fi, and a couple of students who love Southern writers and those focused on general fiction. Steam punk is a big interest--a world that I find a little depressing. And manga. There are still those who focus on romantic relationships. Remember, these are students from 18-24, except for the grad students. But there is no real interest in the land or that deep connection to the past that haunts so many writers, particularly, I think, Southern writers. We are cursed by the past and yet we can't seem to let it go.

  6. What a lovely post, Carolyn. Thanks for being with us today. You struck several chords for me. I grew up in cotton country, too, in North Texas, and ran wild as a child in the outdoors. Unimaginable today.

    But while I was never particularly drawn to Southern writers, I was drawn to British ones, I think for the same reasons. In Britain there always seems to be a connection to the land and the past, and even London is made up of villages with strong place memories. Maybe that is changing, too. I don't know. But I will look forward to dipping into the world I remember from my childhood in your books.

  7. Hi, Carolyn - your comments really struck a chord with me. We live in a Boston suburb and I love that local kids play street hockey. They walk places, take the bus and subway into town, and not all their time is 'scheduled.' Sometimes I think the world is going to hell in a handbasket; sometimes not.

  8. Deborah, once when we were driving through Texas when I was about 7, we stopped at a cafe for lunch. Two cowboys had tied their horses outside. I told my parents I was going to the bathroom and I went straight outside, untied one horse, managed to climb on and was headed into the wilds when they realized I was missing and came looking for me. I thought Texas was heaven! Cowboys and horses. Little did I know I could have been hung for a thief!

    And Hallie, I think that you've caught hold of exactly what I'm getting at. The things that make a community. My dad grew up in upstate New York, and he told us about stick ball, and roller skating in small towns, and roasting corn on the cob in the fields. It wasn't 99 degrees with 100 percent humidity, but it was that unique relationship with the land and region. We couldn't roller skate. We had only dirt roads.

    I do worry that all of this is slipping away. We are homogenized and everyone wants to talk and dress and eat the same. Not my idea of a good thing.

  9. Thought-provoking comments, Carolyn. The crazier our world gets, the more we long for that time when you could leave keys in the car, never lock a door, and know that the neighbors would help keep your kids in line. Books help us escape today's web, so it's no wonder we turn to those like yours that evoke a long-ago sense of place and morality, along with the laughter and humor that insulates us from today's challenges. Thanks for being there for us!