During my MFA studies, I’ve had to step away from the books on my to-read list and substitute them with required readings. It's been hard because the list gets longer and I so want to dive into those stories. Not long ago, I was asked who influenced me as an author. I waltzed all the way back to my teens when my writing steam had really increased. Back then my favorite books featured glamorous jet-set lives penned by Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins. I got a hold of Krantz’s Scruples and subsequently the rest of her books soon after my beloved childhood author Judy Blume paved my way to grown-up reading with Forever and Wifey and never looked back. In a way that other authors hadn’t, Krantz and Collins really showed me how to write without fear. To let it rip. I’d been doing so in my journals, so I realized that my little short stories and poetry deserved the same charge.
When I was introduced to Lee Smith’s work in college, such as Oral History and Black Mountain Breakdown, I was mesmerized by her southern voices and her measured pace which was more familiar to me. Her stories were about straight-forward folks dealing with complex, familial situations steep in secrets, haunts, tragedy in all kinds of levels, relatives and neighbors who weren’t supposed to be talked about - stuff I recognized hearing about in my own family over the years. During excitement, their chatter was high-pitched, full of elation. Otherwise, they spoke in hushed, sympathetic tones for the “pitiful”, as my aunt so loved to say. Soon after, I went on to read classic southern literature by various authors, such as Flannery O’Connor and Zora Neale Hurston. I’ve finally begun to read Faulkner, after years of planning to, and I’m glad I have - to experience what he does with the written language has become a valuable education to me. As I enjoy the stories these writers have spun, I take in the psychology of developing characters.
In an earlier novel of mine, currently in two folders: one on my desktop, the other in my file cabinet, protracted secrets unravel a family. To me, it’s those pesky little generational secrets that create a major aspect of Southern literature, and as they say, chickens will always come home to roost. My main character, Johnny*, in his late-40s, is the youngest of two. The presence of his mother, the matriarch of this family, is prominent throughout the book, even when it’s not her scene. He and his sister have a challenging relationship with her, and so does his wife, with whom he’s now in conflict after twenty years of bliss. On top of that, he’s dealing with a change in his parents’ relationship and his mother’s crisis, one he thought she’d shut down long ago. Of course he and his sister don’t even know what it is and they want to. He’s growing weary, but with his family’s help, he’ll soon discover how strong he will need to be.
Here’s an excerpt from my [still-untitled] WIP (Johnny’s mother, Ellen*, is on the phone with her lifelong best friend discussing Johnny’s wife, whom Ellen never addresses by name):
Secluded alone in a silent house, Ellen sat in her favorite chair next to the living room window and sighed. She’d just returned the phone call to her best friend, Rosa. “Why is Johnny’s wife still so mousy around me?” she asked. It was a longstanding question that exasperated her. “She couldn’t even bring her little elf-sized self up here to say ‘Good morning’.”
“She’s always been that way. You said so yourself and I know it, too,” Rosa said. In her usual soft-spoken manner, calming down Ellen, she continued “Look, I’m calling you so early this morning, since you were on my mind late last night. Are y’all going to North Carolina?”
“Pete* says we should...”
“You might as well go,” Rosa said. Her tone was authoritative, leaving no room for questions. “If you don’t, you’ll never make peace with it.”
“That dream woke me up in the middle of the night again. If I don’t go, I’ll never get a night’s peace of sleep either,” Ellen said. She closed her eyes and shook her head, getting a brief glimpse of the nightmare that once again faced her at dawn, just a couple of hours earlier.
“Since Pete’s going, you’ll be just fine,” Rosa said.
Ellen felt reassured with that. “I think so too,” she said. Her words were soft, almost distant. After taking a deep breath, her voice had grown a bit stronger. “You know I still think Johnny’s wife’s hiding something.”
“Not that again, Ellen. I thought you were going to leave her alone.”
Ellen glared at a speck on the wall. “I have... but I still think so.”
While writing this book, I realized just how vivid the voices of that older generation have been to me than those of my own peers. I recognize how they influenced me growing up, in terms of respect, reverence, and humor, and they’re still with me. This was another fine element of Southern literature I recognized in my readings, and it’s an impact of my own writing that I cherish.
Also... I still enjoy reading my Jackie Collins.
What are some of your writing influences?
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*character's names will change
by Tonya Rice