Wednesday, July 10, 2013

North Toward Home—To Stay; a guest blog by Reba White Williams

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Full disclosure: I read and enthusiastically blurbed Reba White Williams' debut novel, Restrike. I enjoyed the spunky, stand-up-for-themselves heroines, the behind-the-scenes view of the New York art world, and the small cultural touchstones of Southerners living up north. As someone with strong Alabama roots living in New England, I can well identify with that. So, as a matter of fact, can Reba...

            In 1967, Willie Morris, an admired Southern writer, published North Toward Home, a memoir of his Mississippi childhood, his Texas college days, and his move to New York.
            I was attracted by his title, which told my story, too. I was a Southern child, and I had come “North toward home” to New York. But I suffered none of the worries that tortured Willie, torn between Mississippi and New York, troubled about losing his Southerness, and about turning his back on his past. He saw himself as an exile, “alienated from Mississippi, but forever drawn back to it,” and was unhappy in the city he called the “Cave.”
            Why did he come to New York? He wrote: “We had always come, the most ambitious of us, because we had to, because the ineluctable pull of the cultural capital, when the wanderlust was high, was too compelling to resist.” He sounded as if he came against his will. He seemed to see the City through dark and dismal glasses, criticizing everything about New York, including the people. I resolved to adopt his title, ignore his misery, and to embrace New York with the love and appreciation it deserved.
            I had left North Carolina with only $500, under a cloud of family disapproval. I took a train to New York, but with no money to spare for a reserved seat, I was crammed into a crowded ladies’ room, sitting with four women sipping moonshine from mayonnaise jars. I was offered a swig, but declined, not because I feared germs, but because the ride was rough and I feared I’d be sick. Despite my discomfort, I was so excited, I felt as if I were flying.
  In New York, I shared an apartment at 601 Cathedral Parkway with a friend who was studying at Columbia, two of her classmates, a large collie, a small diapered monkey, and a pigeon with one wing. Did I dislike my new home? I wasn’t wild about the monkey, but even he was part of the adventure. My roommates introduced me to subways, bakeries, Broadway, Chinese food, pizzerias, the automat, and a Murphy bed.  
            I saw New York City through rose-tinted glasses. I embraced all that they showed me and much more. I loved everything, especially the fast pace, and the fascinating people. I worked at three part-time jobs to pay my share of the rent, and didn’t complain. I mastered the subway, and used it to explore the city. I attended most of the Broadway shows alone, and standing at the back of the theatre.
            Mocked and teased about my Southern drawl, I was unfazed. I kept my Southern accent, and resolved to transport aspects of the South I loved to New York, notably flowers and food. My garden features Magnolia Grandiflora trees, crepe myrtles, mimosa and honeysuckle.
            I serve homemade ice cream made from ripe peaches from the Carolinas to neighbors in the summertime. While Willie wondered, while eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in Harlem, “where else could a Southern white boy have such a meal?” I and any number of other Southerners were eating that New Year’s meal every year.
            I found another apartment, and got a great job as a researcher at McKinsey. My life was all I’d dreamed about. The touches of the South I brought north added a subtle touch of spice to the flavor of a favorite recipe.
            I give my books a touch of Southern flavor: Coleman and Dinah Greene, the protagonists of Restrike, are from North Carolina, but live and work in New York. They and some of their friends speak with Southern accents or phrases. Dinah often prepares Southern dishes. They remain influenced by their Southern past, but they are true New Yorkers. They, like me, have come North toward home.

 You can find out more about Reba, read her essays, and find out where to meet her in person (hint: tomorrow night, at Longfellow books in Portland, with yours truly) at her web site.


  1. Your book sounds as fascinating as your coming home to New York experiences. Thanks for sharing . . . I’m lookomg forward to reading “Restrike” . . .

  2. What a wonderful blog. Reading this was a delightful way to start my day. I look forward to reading "Restrike," and if it's half as interesting and endearing as your own New York stories, I know I'll love it.

  3. I was born in New Orleans, so I can appreciate southern writing. But I wish Reba would tell us a bit about the story -- What happens to the Greenes when they come to NYC? What's the mystery?

  4. I look forward to reading your book, Reba! Being Southern is like coming from a distant planet! I, too, came up from the South to make my living here - you have to do it to understand the full depth and richness of it - and the challenges! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

  5. Reba, welcome to Jungle Red! I've become a huge fan of southern pace and grace ... and food! ... Paula Deen aside. Your book sounds like fun but tell us more!

  6. Yes, what is Restrike "about"? The cover art is compelling.

    I <3 NY. I am taking a bus down from Cape Cod in mid-August to sleep on my daughter's Brooklyn couch and see "Book of Mormon."

    As a child, I loved trips to NYC -- the automat and Schrafts, Radio City, a to z.

  7. "I wasn't wild about the monkey" ! I'm still laughing about that! And it does pay to be brave, that's for sure..

    ANd wow, Reba, your ad campaign! Talk about that a bit..congratulations!

  8. Congratulations Reba! I consider myself part southerner too, as I spent four years in Tennessee and four in northern Florida, and now Key West of course. It's a perfect combination with New York!

  9. Here’s a brief synopsis of my mystery novel, Restrike: Cousins Dinah and Coleman Greene, who came to New York after graduating from Duke, are 30ish, and are happy in their careers. Dinah runs a small fine art print gallery in Greenwich Village; Coleman is owner of a magazine, ArtSmart. Dinah is newly married; Coleman prefers flings.

    A billionaire comes to New York to open a print museum (the only one in the USA), and pays fantastic prices to buy what he wants. Lots of creepy people come out of the shadows to grab some of his money, and use all kinds of tricks to cheat him. Crime escalates. Someone dies. Both young women are horrified about what is happening in their world.

    Another person—a friend of Coleman’s—dies, and she is determined to stop this, and to find the culprit. Warning: Coleman is sometimes reckless. Luckily, Dolly, her dog, is with her when bad things happen.

    I am so glad you are interested in Restrike, and that if you read it, you’ll enjoy it.

    Regards, Reba

  10. Hi Reba--Your experience with New York sounds like mine with London, except I guess I'd have to call mine "East towards Home," and I've never given up living in the south (if you can call Texas the south:-))

    So tell us about this ad campaign?

  11. I remember the rose-tinted glasses. I lived in New York for awhile, having moved there from California. I even liked the graffiti! I lived in a cramped apartments with two roomies...I'm trying to imagine a monkey in diapers added to the mix! :-)

    Congratulations on RESTRIKE!

  12. Reba White WilliamsJuly 10, 2013 at 12:14 PM

    We splurged on ads, relying on our good friend M.J. Rose of Author Buzz for advice and placement. Most of the money went for on-line, but I felt we had to have some on paper. M.J. got a good deal in a special issue of The New Yorker.

  13. Hi Reba,

    I've been curious about Author Buzz for awhile now...I know it's hard to quantify, but do you feel the cost is worth it? If so, what kinds of ads do you think give you the most bang for you buck?

  14. Reba White WilliamsJuly 10, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    Lisa, it’s just too soon to say. I expect we’ll have an accounting from Author Buzz in a couple of months.

  15. For those Reds in Maine - I know there are a few of you! - Reba and I will be speaking together at Longfellow Books in Portland, tomorrow. I'm crossing my fingers that the whole bookstore doesn't float away: we've been having rain, rain and more rain up here for the past week. (What a week for Youngest to go to camp! I'm hoping she hasn't grown mildew on her sheets.)

    For those of you asking about the plot of RESTRIKE, I'd definitely suggest it for fans of Jane Cleland, Lea Wait (another Maine author!)and Sheila Connolly's Museum Mysteries.

  16. Hi Reba,

    I would love to know more about your book!

    I make fresh peach ice cream every summer too. I forget where I got the recipe, but everyone loves it.

    Tell us more, please?

  17. Reba, thank you for your summary above. It wasn't showing on my screen when I commented. Must remember to refresh!