I'm handing off the blog to one of my favorites today. Laura Benedict is about to start talking, people, so pay attention or get out. Oh, and the doors are locked, so you can't get out.
In Defense of My Hillbilly Life
Back when we lived on my husband’s family’s dairy farm in West Virginia, his former prep school roommate wanted to bring his wife down from New Jersey for a visit. We’d already been up to Saddle River and stayed at her parents’ palatial home. (In fact, we’re pretty sure our daughter was conceived in their Jungle Room suite, though not on the zebra rug, darn it.) But for some reason, the wife was reluctant to return the visit. It took her husband weeks to convince her. Why? (It had nothing to do with the Jungle Room, I promise.) She was afraid to come to West Virginia because she feared she might be attacked and/or shot by random hillbillies. Seriously.
Even though I was offended, I knew where she was coming from. People fear things they don’t understand.
My writing territory clusters around an interstate, weirdly enough--the stretch of 1-64 that runs from St. Louis to deep in Virginia. I’ve lived in the cities and suburbs of Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville, Kentucky. Also in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. But because Virginia and West Virginia came in the second half of my life, I grew up with a lot of peculiar ideas about, you know, mountain people.
When I was a kid and my dad told me we were moving from Ohio to Louisville, Kentucky, I was worried I would have to stop wearing shoes. Hey, I was only seven years old, and all I knew about Kentucky was horses and The Beverly Hillbillies. (I know. They were from Tennessee, but it was all the same to me and a million other kids.) But it was Louisville, for pity’s sake, and there isn’t a holler for a hundred miles around.
From Louisville, my folks decided we should explore my dad’s eastern Kentucky roots, so off we went to find Arjay, Kentucky, where my Grandpa Philpot was born. And we absolutely had to have a pic taken at the post office that bore the family name. (I’m the one in the stylish navy blue knee socks.) We didn’t find any Philpots there in 1972. I don’t even think we stayed overnight in the neighborhood. My mom, who is not a big fan of country life, was surely eager to return to civilization.
Years later, when I was working for The Ginormous Beer Company in St. Louis, I somehow managed to get them to pay for me to go to a writing workshop in Hindman, Kentucky. Still curious about my mountain roots, I thought, Why the hell not? It was there I met the love of my life, Pinckney Benedict, who was from West Virginia (he was also the headliner at the workshop!).
I got a lot of crap from people in St. Louis about moving to the mountains. The rudest of those comments came from a shiny, obnoxious co-worker who, in later years, was the perfect model for one of my shiniest, most obnoxious characters. “I give you a year, there,” she said. “You’ll be back.” I think that was the moment I started to get protective of my future neighbors. Very protective.
Sure, there are undereducated, lazy, culturally ignorant, racist, and/or violent people who live in the region. But show me a region of the country--the world--where there are not.
When I write, I try to be sensitive to stereotypes. I don’t always succeed. I’ve been guilty of the Irish priest and the shrewd, miserly German. I was mortified when I first listened to the audio version of my first novel, ISABELLA MOON, which takes place in central Kentucky. One thing that omnipresent television has done is smoothed out southern accents. Heavy accents are the exception, particularly in the deep south. Kentucky accents are fairly mild--and that’s how I heard them in my head as I wrote. (I was encouraged to lose my own when I moved to St. Louis to finish college and went to work at a radio station. I miss it sometimes as though it were a lost limb.) On the audio, the sheriff’s accent is so exaggerated that it sounds like English isn’t his first language. Worse, the voice of my cultured black schoolteacher, Lillian Caley, has broad,1930s Mammy overtones. I still read complaints about it in reviews. (Note to self: exercise approval clause in audio contracts or voice the books myself--sans accents.)
Here’s some of what I know about Appalachia, and mountain folk, in general:
Not everyone there spends their time struggling for survival against raging, misogynistic drug lords, having babies with their first cousins, or practicing target shooting on their neighbor’s cat. In fact, it’s a very small percentage of folks that lives on society’s edges. It’s no different in Philadelphia, upstate New York, downtown San Francisco, or the suburbs of St. Louis.
Not everyone goes to church, or even believes in any sort of god. They belong to Rotary Club and take yoga classes at the community center. They get their cars stolen and their houses broken into. They do amateur theatre, and have favorite coffee houses. Many people are college educated. They work in hospitals and lawyers’ offices. They go to casinos and on vacations to the beach. Or Branson, Missouri. They drive a long way to buy fashionable clothes or to see new films. They read books. Sometimes they go hunting and fishing, and a very few of them poach wildlife. Resources and entertainment are often limited by geography, but pretty much everyone has a satellite dish or cable, if they want it. It’s contemporary culture in miniature, but it is life and culture still.
You won’t necessarily get that picture from fiction. A lot of regional work is crime fiction--and the criminal element is rarely pretty. (Crime is pretty on television’s Law and Order, though, where the criminals live in penthouses and Virginia is where bad people get their guns. I just had to get that in.) Get a broad view: Read Chris Offutt, Ann Pancake, Tom Franklin, and Pinckney Benedict, but also read Lee Smith, Sharyn McCrumb, Ron Rash, and Denise Giardina.
It’s not hard not to be condescending or patronizing to entire cultural groups. As a writer, I think it’s the better choice. It’s better for the story, and it’s better for the reader. Call me on it if you catch me at it, please.
Let’s all live in peace and harmony, okay? (Cue the Kumbaya drums…) If you come to visit me in Southern Illinois, the frequent gunfire you hear is only the neighboring meth dealers, and they’re very, very careful about keeping their ammunition out of other people’s yards. I’m pretty sure one of their kids goes to my son’s tiny private school. And they have a helluva satellite system set up and keep their driveway nicely paved. Who knows? They may even cook at the Rotary Club pancake breakfast. You just never know.
Laura’s latest novel is DEVIL’S OVEN, an Appalachian Gothic thriller. She’s also the author of the dark suspense novels ISABELLA MOON and CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS. She has also edited the Surreal South: an Anthology of Short Fiction series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, Noir at the Bar, and a number of other anthologies. She lives in the southernmost wilds of a midwestern state, where she is surrounded by coyotes, bobcats, and many other less picturesque predators.
You can visit her website at www.laurabenedict.com
Her Twitter handle is @laurabenedict