Image from Flickr via Rich Anderson
It is noon on a blistering hot day in February. On the sagging wood porch of a clapboard shack, the author Tom Piazza sits in a rocking chair, a shotgun across his lap, watching The Questioner approach across a dusty cotton field, one of the few left in downtown New Orleans. The creaking of the porch’s rotting boards under the rocker is the only sound in the oppressive stillness. On a straight-back wooden chair next to Piazza, a hound of indeterminate breed is asleep, flies buzzing around its head. The Questioner finally reaches the porch’s bottom step, sweating heavily, out of breath.
Questioner: <Leaning on the railing, loosening tie> Mr. Piazza…?
Tom Piazza: <Swings the shotgun around and levels it at The Questioner> What do you want now?
Q: <Eyes widening, gazing at the shotgun> I’m… I’m here for the interview. About life in the South…?
TP: <Leans forward, squints> Interview! Hell, why didn’t you say so? I thought you were that fellow from the Sewerage and Water Board again, trying to hook me up to the goddam municipal water supply. Like well water was poison or something. <Sets shotgun down against the porch railing>
Q: <Swallows hard> Right… right. Is this a bad time to talk?
TP: Hell no! Come on up and sit down! You’re in the South! We got nothin’ BUT time!
Q: Okay, then. <Starts climbing steps>
TP: Jethro! Get the hell out of that chair and let the man sit down!
<The dog rouses itself slowly, heaves off the chair, and lies down two feet away, tongue lolling. The Questioner approaches the chair, brushes off the cushion a few times>
TP: Just a few fleas; they won’t hurt you. Have some lemonade.
Q: Thank you very much. <Sits down gingerly> So, we were hoping to get a few words from you on what it’s like being a Southern Writer. Ideally you could offer some evocative anecdote or piquant aphorism, or perhaps some commentary about the ambiguities of contemporary Southern life, its intimate relation to the burden of history…
TP: Hold on there, son… You’re firing so many five-dollar words at me I might have to pull out the dictionary I got propping up the wood stove. You want some moonshine? <Begins sipping heavily from a fruit jar containing a clear liquid> Now whut makes you say I’m a Southern writer, again?
Q: <Looking nervously at the rapidly emptying fruit jar> Well… uh…
TP: <Drains the fruit jar and throws it off the porch> Look here. First of all, I’m from Long Island.
Q: Long Island… New York?
TP: No—Long Island, Russia. I went to college in Massachusetts and damn near froze my nuts off, then I spent fourteen years in New York City, and then I spent three years in Iowa. Now what kind of Southerner does that make me?
Q: <Slightly flustered> Well… I guess…
TP: I’ll tell you what kinda Southerner it makes me: typical. Let me tell you something else: real writers don’t buy into those kinds of labels in the first place. Or if they do they’re just trying to sell some books.
Q: Wait… Are you saying there’s no such thing as Southern writing? I’m not sure I understand…
TP: All right, let me ask you something. You’re from New York, right?
Q: Uh, Brooklyn.
TP: Fine. What do you think of when you think of the South? Don’t be scared—go on and say.
Q: Well, the Civil War, I guess. Segregation. Uh… Barbecue?
TP: Go on. That’s it?
Q: Southern literature. Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor. Blues singers. I don’t know… Guns. Cotton fields…
TP: <Yawns, loudly> Let me know when you’re finished.
Q: <Frowns> Southern accents?
TP: <Shakes head> You’re done. You did about like I figured.
Q: What did I leave out?
TP: You got the hole but you missed the donut.
Q: What’s that supposed to mean?
TP: I heard Barry Hannah tell a story one time about a writer from some Northern magazine come through Oxford, Mississippi, back in Barry’s drinking days. They were sitting there and nobody was saying anything, and Barry was staring at this fellow, who was getting kinda nervous, you understand, wondering what he was supposed to do and say, and after a long silence Barry just looked at him and said, “Whut the FUCK are you lookin’ at?” Barry told the story on himself, like it was a joke, but then he said, “That’s always the question for a writer: What the fuck are you looking at?” I miss Barry.
Q: I guess I don’t understand what this has to do with being a Southern Writer.
TP: Can I ask you something? Why are you hung up on this “Southern” label? Don’t you think it’s kind of limiting? I don’t like any label telling me what I ought to be thinking about or how I ought to be acting. Maybe it’s good for sales to have a niche like that, but American reality is a lot weirder and more complicated. I hate these little pigeonholes.
Q: But don’t you feel part of a Southern tradition? There is such an oral storytelling tradition in the South, such a deep religious background, such a feel for the Gothic, such a connection to place… I would think you’d be proud to call yourself a Southern Writer.
TP: <Shakes head, looks at The Questioner, then turns to the dog, whose ears have perked up> All right, you asked for it. Go on, Jethro—tell him!
Dog: <Sits up> It is the prerogative of a writer who feels himself or herself marginalized for whatever reason—ethnically, regionally, spiritually—to move back and forth among various levels of diction, and to use his or her own natural preoccupation with social contrast to explore the strategies and tactics marginalized people use to make their way in a complex society. This, frankly, has always been one of the primary functions of the novel. There is, of course, the mandarin novel of manners, which existed, and exists, to amuse an upper middle class with the subtle striations of manner within a fixed and intelligible social grid. But there is another tradition of books that follow characters outside the borders of any predictable social grid. This, I would argue, comes from a profoundly American impulse, and has produced most of our best and most characteristic novels—Moby Dick, Invisible Man, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby—novels of upheaval, dislocation, mobility, subversion of expectation, shifting identity. Oddly enough, much contemporary Southern Literature doesn’t make sufficient use of this extraordinary palette of real social contrast, settling too often for an acceptance of a narrowly envisioned regional identity, and exaggerating the most obvious or grotesque or caricatured elements, whereas it ought to lay claim to a thoroughly heterodox American conception.
TP: Yeah, Jethro! You got it! Lay it on him!
Q: <Gapes at the dog, open-mouthed, astonished> But… how… a talking dog?
TP: What? A dog doesn’t have a right to an opinion? <Grins broadly, revealing a missing front tooth> What the fuck are you looking at?
Tom Piazza is the author of eleven books of fiction and nonfiction; his novel A Free State is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2015.
Return to “On the South” for more on the region, the culture, and the mindset.