Saturday, July 18, 2015

Why I Wrote "The Reverend"

So, I still need to finish Dashboard Hula. Big shocker!  And I will definitely do that soon.  I’m really close this time.  Seriously.  In the meantime, I’m more interested in developing a series of blog posts 

describing some of my experiences writing The ReverendI plan to post once or twice a week starting… NOW! And continue until I get bored.

First off, this is embarrassing.  My wife JL assures me that I could not have been as stupid as my memory seems to indicate, but the way I remember it I was very stupid.  A professor at Spalding University, where I was working on my MFA, asked me a simple question, “Who is your favorite southern writer?” and my mind ceased to function, which led me to sputter out a string of nonsense that I’ll get to momentarily.

To be fair, I’ve never considered myself a southern writer.  I've lived my whole life in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia, but I've always felt like a refugee from another planet.  I've never venerated the confederate flag and I was the only kid in my third grade class who supported Walter Mondale. And though I had sampled and enjoyed William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, All the King’s Men and “Why I live at the P.O.”, to name a few, my reading habits had long since migrated north. 

Also, my brain stops working in formal social situations, especially when it's unprepared.  So, when that professor asked me what must have seemed like the most natural question in the world when speaking to a creative writing student from Alabama, “Who is your favorite Southern writer?” my eyes crossed, my head tilted, and drool spilled from the corner of my gaping mouth. 

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that bad.

After a frantic mental search that took between a few seconds and a thousand years—my recollection suggests it was closer to the latter—I finally blurted out the only name my feeble mind could conjure.  I told him my favorite southern writer was Harper Lee.

The professor made a surprised sound and expression that I took to be my cue to continue, even though I had nothing else to say. 

“Now, I haven’t read ALL of her books,” is what I remember saying next.  My memory kind of trails off after that, but I’m sure it had something to do with To Kill a Mockingbird being one heck of a book.  The professor politely excused himself.

The conversation left a bitter aftertaste so, on the way back to my room, I stopped by a computer lab to do a little research on my favorite southern writer.

Naturally, one of the first things I learned was that Harper Lee only published one book.  This was 2002 or thereabouts, long before anyone suspected her lawyer would begin publishing her old manuscripts.  As the initial embarrassment began to wear off (as opposed to the more permanent variety that persists to this day), I discovered something interesting. 

According to a long forgotten website, Harper Lee had once spent time in Alexander City, Alabama researching an alleged serial killer, a Baptist preacher named Willie Maxwell.

This struck me for two reasons.  1) I was born in Alexander City.  I lived there from 1974-1982, including part of the time, Maxwell was active.  2) I remembered my family discussing the story at the dinner table: how he killed members of his family for the insurance money; how people crossed the street when they saw him walking their way; how he supposedly practiced voodoo; how he once married the prosecutor’s chief witness against him and then murdered her too; how he was murdered at the funeral of his final victim in front of 300 witnesses.

Okay, so I suppose I didn’t remember all of that.  We have established that memory is a tricky thing, but I did recall hearing a lot of these details years earlier.  A call to my mother in Alabama provided more information and triggered more memories. 

As it happened, I had just been given an assignment to write a nonfiction piece on the topic of my choice. 

Guess what topic I chose?

If Harper Lee wasn’t going to write the story, I decided, then I would.  I’ll tell you more about what happened when I did in my next post.

Next: A Summary of Facts about the Reverend

Related: Writing in the Shadow of Harper LeeComparing the Firct Chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman

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