My friend Laurie Christolear (a talented poet and storyteller in her own right) has asked me some questions about why I use places in Alabama as the setting for some of my stories. I answered her questions, but felt like I should expound upon my thoughts a bit.
Even though I consider myself an Army brat and only have a trace of a southern accent, I consider myself an Alabama native. No, I wasn’t born in the state, but nearly all of my family was. Roots run deep in the red clay down here. I’ve lived in other places, but no other state has ever really been home. And now that I’m married with a kid and own a home — it really is Sweet Home Alabama.
And always will be.
That said, I use my hometown of Enterprise as a fictional jumping-off point for a lot of stories. And if I want to change or make up landmarks? Well, I usually keep the name, simply as an homage to the place I grew up. In one particular instance, I made the setting an amalgam of Enterprise and Tuscaloosa (where I live now). If I want to set a piece in a larger city, I usually don’t give the city a name. That way I can make up stuff wholesale, without anyone telling me I got it wrong.
And here’s another reason to use Alabama as a setting: This state has a lot of character, and a lot of insanity. There are things that happen in Alabama that could only happen here. (And I mean that in every good and bad way that you can think of.) If I find I can’t use the actual place, I can use the mindset, if that makes sense.
And I do take inspiration from Alabama writers. It’s probably trite to list Harper Lee as an influence, but let’s face it — To Kill A Mockingbird was saying incredibly smart things about race relations in Alabama before I was even born. I re-read it occasionally to remind myself that race relations in our state haven’t come as far as I’d like to think.
I’m writing a novel set during Prohibition, with a black protagonist. He falls in love with a white woman, which was a dangerous thing to do back in those days. Possibly lethal for him if he gets caught, so yeah, I’d definitely say I can feel Harper Lee’s influence on what I’m writing, even if it’s accidental. My biggest influences, though, are much more eclectic.
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Jennifer Echols, a Birmingham author who is writing smart, popular fiction that really embodies the Southern zeitgeist. I think she’s a much more immediate influence. I’d love to have a career like hers. Her book, Going Too Far, is one of the best pieces of pop fiction I’ve ever read. Incredible talent.
So yeah, where I’m from definitely influences how and what I write — and I think that’s true with any writer.