“You can’t write a Southern novel if you don’t write about race,” author Jack Riggs said. So it was appropriate that three Atlanta-based authors gathered recently (8/5/2010) over the 50th anniversary of the memorable Southern novel “To Kill A Mockingbird.” The authors — Mary Kay Andrews, Riggs and Paul Guest — gave personal accounts of growing up in the South and how Harper Lee’s signature novel affected their own works.
Atticus Finch, the protagonist portrayed in the 1962 movie by Gregory Peck, was likened to Shane, another strong, silent movie hero. “(Finch) doesn’t rail,” said Andrews (whose real name is Kathy Hogan Trocheck). “He does what he has to do. That’s a contrast to today’s polarization, where (characters) have to rant and take to the streets.”
Andrews confessed to “cramming” for the panel event, as she is working on a new novel and also because her body of work generally is aimed at women and has a comical touch. However, memories of her Southern upbringing are vivid and show in her characters, which generally are Southern caricatures. (Disclosure: Andrews and I were U. of Georgia classmates.) The best-selling author told her audience how she remembers seeing a water fountain marked “colored” in a supermarket in St. Petersburg, FL. Thinking that that meant “colored water,” her childlike fascination ended abruptly when her mother pulled her away from the fountain.
The other authors also were children when “Mockingbird” came out in 1960, just as race relations in the South were entering a tense decade. Guest also acknowledged cramming via an audiobook narrated by actor Sissy Spacek. But he also related an interesting story of how his grandfather mixed a poultice that included tobacco to treat Guest’s hornet sting that he suffered on his grandfather’s farm. Such things are part of Southern lore now.
The authors also told of other writers and works that interest them. Andrews said “The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd and “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett are contemporary works that remind her of “Mockingbird.”
“The more I Google (about North Carolina in 1895), the more I find an amazing amount of material,” Riggs said of researching his next novel; he wrote “When The Finch Rises” in 2004. He says Pat Conroy (“Prince of Tides”) is among his favorites. Like Conroy, he likes a “sense of place” in his novels; “Finch” was set in 1968 North Carolina.
Guest, a Rossville, GA, native, told how he broke his neck at age 12 in a bicycle accident that damaged two vertebrates. His memoir — “One More Theory About Happiness” — focuses mostly on growing up in Alabama towns such as Scottsboro and Fort Payne.
Writing advice: “You can’t revise what you haven’t written,” Andrews said. Added Riggs: “Terry Kay (another Georgia-based novelist) said the most successful writers are the ones who listen.”