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Susan Rebecca White talks foodies, religion, and her latest novel

Susan Rebecca White’s third novel, A Place at the Table, is a character-driven story of souls lost and found, inspired by the cross-generational, cross-racial friendship of two renowned Southern chefs, the late Edna Lewis and longtime Atlantan Scott Peacock. Over iced coffee at Dancing Goats Coffee Bar in Decatur, White talked about cooking, writing, teaching, and finding a place to belong.

Why are so many writers foodies?
For me, cooking is creative in some ways, like writing is. But it’s easier. For the most part, I know that if I whip egg whites and fold them in a soufflé base correctly, I will get a soufflé. But with a book there are so many false starts and new beginnings and revisions. So cooking is creative, but with more consistent results. And I think there’s also just something about the material world. Food—and eating—is the material world, and it’s essential, and I think writers are interested in observing the world. And then there’s probably also the metaphoric connection between reading as feeding the soul, reading as letting you survive.

Did you know how this novel was going to end when you started writing?
No. I started writing this one right before A Soft Place to Land came out, in March of 2010. I didn’t know how it ended really until June of 2012. I was at Hambidge [an artist residency program in North Georgia]. I had an idea, and it just started coming out. I will say that I resisted the ending.

Why?
I was very self-conscious of being a white Southern writer taking on any issues of race. I was nervous about it. I just was scared to write it.

What’s your writing process? Do you write every day?
No! [Laughs] I’m a total feast-or-famine kind of writer. I think I would be a happier person if I wrote every day. But I don’t. I take a lot of notes. I’m just starting a new project right now, so I’m an author in search of a subject. I get the Moleskine notebooks and I just write myself notes around things that I’m interested in, and ask questions. A lot of times I will get a voice out of that. With this book, it very much started with Bobby’s voice. It started with the chapter where his brother hides his mother’s underwear in his room. I want to say that it really took off after that, but it really didn’t. This was a book of halting stops and starts and dead ends and tons of pages deleted—and many honest-to-God weepy moments where I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing; this is the end of my career.”

Do you have people read your work as you’re writing it?
I do. I’m in a writing group with Sheri Joseph, Jessica Handler, and Peter McDade—whose little girl this book is dedicated to—and Beth Gylys, who is a poet at Georgia State. We meet about once or twice a month. And my boyfriend, now fiance, Sam sat down with me and went over it, kind of at a crisis moment.

When you’re writing in three very distinctive voices, what kind of adjustment do you make in your head to make those voices true?
I don’t do anything conscious. With Bobby, I’ve got that little, earnest Baptist kid voice in my head. I just have it. To a certain degree, it’s Missy’s voice from my first novel, Bound South. That kid is in me somewhere. Even though I didn’t grow up Baptist, I just know that earnest kid is there. Amelia is probably the closest to my own voice—the closest to my own self. With Alice, I got quieter. I remember sitting in the office and just trying to remember what it smells like to be in the woods—and what it sounds like to be in the woods. Trying to remember what it feels like underneath your feet.

There’s a real sense of belonging—or not belonging, more precisely—in this book. Do you feel like at this point in your life you’ve found where you belong?
Hmm. I’m finding it. It’s funny, because I probably would have said that I had found it five years ago. Yet I look back at that now and know that I hadn’t. The question of belonging is always going to be something I pursue in my writing. I’m from a family of his, hers, and ours—and I’m the “ours.” My half siblings were raised in super-different environments, and I was kind of the link.

Did you feel a sense of responsibility in that?
I think I felt a sense of guilt, because it was a privileged position to be the one kid whose parents weren’t divorced—and the love child. But there was also a lot of responsibility that goes with that. I never had a solid sense of, “This is what my family is. This is who I am.”

I love the line when Bobby is talking about his boyfriend, Sebastian: “It’s as if he wakes up each morning ready to be delighted.” Is there any of you in that description?
I’m sort of a craggy optimist. But I am pretty optimistic. I would say that line is the best of my ex-husband. I do know people like that. I will say the older I’ve gotten, the less enamored I am with cynicism.

It’s exhausting . . .
It’s exhausting, and we’re going to die.

Another line I really liked: when Amelia says, “I am no one’s beloved but my own.” That’s heartbreaking.
I thought about that a lot during my divorce. That was a very, very solitary time for me—and also one of the most empowering experiences I’ve ever been through. I remember tending to myself. I was living in New York the summer when we were figuring out how to separate. So I was living by myself in New York and researching this book. And I would take very tender care of myself. I would fix myself simple but delicious meals, and take a bath, and take a walk around the reservoir. And I remember telling myself that I was beloved, even though I was the only one telling myself that.

How does what’s going on in your personal life affect your writing?
One of the amazing gifts about being a writer is, you get to process your life. And it feeds your art. This book wouldn’t have happened without the divorce. It wasn’t mercenary. There’s no machination: “I’m going to create crisis in order to have this book.” But it really does let there be deeper meaning. It allows deeper meaning for my day-to-day experience. There’s nothing in this book that matches point by point my autobiography. But when Amelia’s riding around on her bike in New York, free of all the weight and masks of her marriage . . . That felt like me. That resonated with how I feel right now in my own life: free to ride around on my bike, happy.

Where do you fall in the religious spectrum?
I don’t know. I definitely have a sacramental view of the world; I’m not a secular humanist. But I get really uncomfortable with too much Jesus talk. I guess in the most trite terms, I’m a seeker.

How does your teaching experience affect your own writing?
It feeds me. Writing feeds me in a specific way that only writing can, and teaching feeds me in a way that only teaching can. This is my eleventh year off and on in the classroom, and I feel pretty competent. I feel competent at establishing a community where people feel safe and comfortable, but there are high standards. I don’t shy away from saying, “I don’t think this is working right here, but here are some thoughts about what you can do.” This is the encapsulation of a great teaching moment for me—and it happens a lot: We were all sitting around a table, talking about a story, and one kid says, “Oh, I hate this. I always walk in with this very concrete idea about how this story works, and I always leave thinking something different.” And I thought, “Awesome!” That kind of energy is really, really exciting. It’s very invigorating.

Is there any one piece of advice that you tell every writing student?
I guess the most basic advice if you’re just scared about writing a story is the Passover Seder rule of writing, which is: Why is this day different than any other day? You ask that at the Seder dinner, and that’s what they need to be asking about their story. Why are we looking at this particular day in this character’s life?

Joshilyn Jackson once told me that she limits the time she spends blogging to twenty minutes a day, because anything more than that becomes “real writing.” How do you balance the time demands of blogging versus real writing?
I don’t think I do! I’m a very infrequent blogger. I’m a horrible social media person, because I don’t know how to just do it for twenty minutes and push it out there. I’m very deliberate, and I need to mull over things. I need to write lots of drafts of things. I can get addicted to the spin of things—check my Gmail, check Facebook, check Twitter. And then hours have passed and that really good, intense, quality writing time has not happened.

You mentioned that you’ve already started kicking around ideas for the next novel. Do you usually have a work in progress?
When my agent took Bound South out to try to sell it, I felt so much pressure on myself about whether or not it would sell. My half sister Lauren Myracle, who is a YA author, said, “What you need to do is go start your second book. The best thing you can do to alleviate your anxiety is to start a second book.” So I did. And that worked well. I feel like in this window right now—when a book is finished and I’m waiting for it to publish—I have this moment of stillness. You don’t know how a book is going to be received, how popular or not popular it’s going to be. It’s just a moment of stillness.

What writers do you read?
I go back to Anne Lamott all the time. I teach Bird by Bird every semester. It’s always helpful. And every time I read it, I learn something new. Also, I love Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I love that it’s good, decent people trying to live good, decent lives. And it’s just so beautifully written. I’m a huge, huge fan of Flannery O’Connor. Her Mystery and Manners is another great writing book. Right now I’m reading the novel Beautiful Ruins. I’m also reading There Goes My Everything. It’s about the civil rights movement as experienced by white people—not necessarily the villains and not necessarily the heroes. Another nonfiction book I loved was Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, which followed this Puerto Rican family for ten years in the criminal justice system. And Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns was amazing. I love nonfiction that is as compelling as a novel.

Do you remember the first book that you read and just loved?
I do. Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster. I remember when eleven-year-old Ellen, a white girl, realizes that she always thought she was better than her best friend, Starletta, who is black. I was sitting in the bathtub, and I remember closing the book and just kind of taking it in. And then All the King’s Men. I read that in my senior year of high school, and I felt like my brain had just gotten a little bit smarter. It was the first big, important book that I really felt like I got—this idea that no one is morally pure and it’s a very complicated universe.

This is an extended version of an article that originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.

Anthony C. Winkler may be the best novelist you’ve never heard of

Jamaica-born Anthony C. Winkler, dapper and quick-witted at seventy-one, immigrated more than half a century ago to America, and ultimately to Atlanta. Even now, though, the island continues to shape his extraordinary fiction. Winkler may be the best novelist you’ve never heard of. In fact, his vocation was writing college English textbooks; fiction was a second job.

Winkler’s latest novel, The Family Mansion (Akashic Books), continues the brilliant, irreverent recasting of Europe’s colonization of Jamaica that he began in last year’s God Carlos. With the sixteenth-century Spanish invaders replaced by nineteenth-century English aristocrats—much more refined in their brutality—Winkler fearlessly explores every taboo of the day, especially the inevitable entanglement of race and rank.

Through the irresistibly awful character Hartley Fudges— seemingly doomed second son in an age of primogeniture—Winkler tells a story steeped in satire, sex, and humor. Every period detail, whether the view is of Jamaica or England, rings true. “London was beginning to wake up in increments, its streets slowly coming alive with pedestrians and horses,” Winkler writes. “Weak, waterish, and without warmth, the February winter sun peered blurrily down on the city like a nearsighted eye squinting through a dirty monocle.” Another textbook example of fine fiction writing.

WINKLER ON . . .

WHY HE CHOSE ATLANTA I liked the gentility of the people. It seemed to me they were very polite. I lived in California for thirteen years, and it never seemed to me like there was much sense of community among the people who lived there. But Atlanta is quite different.

MAMA JAMAICA You can’t help but love your homeland. I love Atlanta, but Jamaica is my mother. Atlanta is my stepmother.

STAYING FOCUSED Writers should write. They shouldn’t spend all their time hobnobbing with other writers.

LITERARY LOVES One of my favorite writers is E.M. Forster, who wrote A Passage to India. There’s another Jamaican writer that not many people have heard of—Victor Reid. He wrote a book called The Leopard. It’s really beautiful and moving.

SECRET TO SUCCESS The secret to writing good fiction is rewriting. Rewriting is drudgery personified, but it is the only technique for making writing better. That works with all kinds of writing.

BEST ADVICE TO YOUNG WRITERS Don’t be afraid of plunging into the darkness.

BEST ADVICE HE EVER GOT Be yourself and do your best. I don’t remember who gave it to me, but it has become a personal shibboleth. It has guided my footsteps and informed my daily decision-making.

This article originally appeared in our May 2013 issue.

Tracy Thompson’s take on the South’s shifting identity

In The New Mind of the South (Simon & Schuster), former journalist and Georgia native Thompson revisits the concept of Southern identity first explored in W.J. Cash’s 1941 classic The Mind of the South. Thompson is a product of Fulton County public schools, Georgia State, and Emory. She moved away in 1989 and lives now near Washington, D.C., which gives her a useful perspective as both an insider and an outsider, with a vested interest and a cool remove.

Combining her spot-on observations with deep research, the result is a compulsively readable, enlightening, occasionally insulting take on who we are now. This is Thompson on Atlanta: “It is Southern in the same unintentional way Scarlett O’Hara was Southern: shrewd, afflicted with a remarkable incuriosity about its own past, and an almost childlike attachment to its illusions.”

Thompson covers race, of course, along with unbridled urbanization, the fusion of Southern evangelical religion and conservative politics, and immigration—the region’s real game changer in the twenty-first century. “The South has been disappearing for so long that predicting its demise is an academic and journalistic cottage industry,” Thompson writes. “Still, even the Roman Empire eventually did fall, and ‘The South’ really is going to die someday. Will immigration succeed in doing what war, the civil rights movement, and an army of real estate developers have failed to do?” As with Cash’s original study, Thompson’s questions are fascinating and answers elusive.

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

Susan Puckett

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Maybe we all believe our home turf is the most fascinating, unusual, complex place on earth. But Susan Puckett makes a compelling case that her beloved Mississippi Delta actually is. Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey Through the Soul of the South—equal parts travelogue, cookbook, memoir, and photo gallery—captures the modern-day realities of a confounding region most often in the news for persistent poverty, racial tension, and low literacy rates. Despite all that, the Delta has become a tourist destination in recent years, luring people who want to experience the music, art, and food—and perhaps play the slot machines in Tunica.

For nearly two decades, Puckett was the food editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she crafted award-winning stories about food not simply as a practical matter but as sustenance for the soul. Now a free agent (and regular Atlanta magazine contributor), she explores her native Mississippi through that same lens.

Puckett grew up in Jackson, less than an hour’s drive from the southern tip of the Delta—a fat tamale-shaped area that stretches from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg. From the first pages of the introduction, it’s clear she is the perfect driver for this road trip. “You know when you’ve arrived,” she writes. “The highways narrow, billboards and streetlights disappear, and the gently rolling hills dissolve into tracts of farmland as flat and wide as a calm, dark sea. Flocks of blackbirds swoop in ribbonlike formation across the expansive sky. Snowy-white egrets dot the edges of shimmering man-made catfish ponds and sinuous, swampy bayous. At times these are the only visible signs of life for miles.”

Though Puckett includes plenty of recipes, you don’t have to be a cook (or a Mississippian) to appreciate the beauty of this book, published by the University of Georgia Press. The language is stunning and the photographs—by Langdon Clay—are frame-worthy. Puckett pays proper homage to the standards: barbecue, meat-and-three specials, mile-high meringue pies. But she also dishes out catfish pâté, Lebanese kibbeh, dill pickles marinated in Kool-Aid, and chicken brined in sweet tea. At the beginning of this mesmerizing journey, Puckett cites Faulkner: “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” To which she adds her own invaluable tip: “Enter with an empty stomach and an open mind.” Even beyond the Delta, it’s the only way to travel.

Photograph by Joann Vitelli. This review originally appeared in our February 2013 issue.

Q&A with Taylor Branch

Taylor Branch published Parting the Waters, the first volume in his definitive three-part history of the civil rights movement, in 1988. In the quarter-century since, virtually everything has changed about the way books are published and how history is consumed. Branch said for years he had fielded complaints from college professors and high school teachers that, although they loved the storytelling approach of his MLK trilogy, they simply could not compel students to plow through all 3,000 pages.

Branch responds now with The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (Simon & Schuster), considerably less daunting at 200 pages. Branch chose eighteen pivotal moments from his original three-volume series and wrote new introductions for each, adding concise historical context. The result is a surprisingly effective primer.

Branch, a product of the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, has lived for years in Baltimore. He dedicated this slim volume to “students of freedom and teachers of history.” Even in the digital age, Branch believes in the power of narrative history. “The further away we get from something, the harder it is to put it in context,” he said. “Stories and details and characters are vital.”

Branch, who turns sixty-six this month, taught a course in civil rights history at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, last year and he’s developing a similar online course through the University of Baltimore. And he continues to ply his trade as a journalist, sparking the most controversy of his career with a 2011 piece he wrote for The Atlantic called “The Shame of College Sports.” “My son teases me all the time that a toss-off history of college sports generated more heat than my life’s work in civil rights,” Branch said.

From his home in Baltimore, Branch talked recently about history, publishing, and staying relevant.

An interview with the author

How did you choose the eighteen moments to focus on in this book? I slaved over the introductions as much as I did the choices. For example, the chapter on the political conventions of 1964 is a very short [one], but it makes it clearer than ever that the conventions together were really a pivotal moment in American history, when the Democrats and the Republicans essentially switched places. The race issue was powerful enough to reverse the whole partisan structure of American politics in a way that lasts to this day.

Why dedicate this book to history teachers? High school history teachers kept telling me that they are beleaguered. Schools aren’t evaluated on what their students learn about history; they’re evaluated on reading and math. So history is an orphan. You’re at the low end of the totem pole for textbooks, and the textbooks aren’t very good anyway. And a lot of American history teachers told me that when they get to the civil rights movement, they’re Googling for something they can use that’s not boiled oatmeal.

You’ve spent more than a third of your life researching and writing about civil rights? Was it time well spent? It absolutely was, and still is, my life’s mission. It’s what goes deepest in me. I wasn’t born or raised to be a writer, let alone a writer about race relations. But I grew up in this period. I was in the first grade when the Brown decision happened, and I was a senior in college when Dr. King was murdered. In all the formative years in between, the civil rights movement was pounding away. Finally, it changed the direction of my life’s interest against my will.

Do you think that where you came from drove your interest? Absolutely. The elders in Atlanta at that period insisted that they had everything under control, when they clearly didn’t and were rattled and unnerved. Nobody—no elected official that I knew of—was calling for the end of segregation. It was a pretty big adjustment emotionally to see that these black kids—my age and younger—were really more in command of the agenda and of the moral high ground than the people who ran the world. It was a pretty unsettling time.

What do you read for pleasure? Mostly history? I’m afraid so. Right now I’m reading a history of the early Indochina war —the French period, from World War II until the American war started, the forties and the fifties. Only when I’m going on vacation do I get to read a novel, and usually it’s a Laura Lippman or an Elmore Leonard.

Besides your own, what are a few American history books that everybody should read? The one that inspired me to write narrative history was Shelby Foote’s The Civil War. For a one-volume book, I think Garry Wills’s book on the Gettysburg Address is a treasure. For a broader history outside the United States, one of my favorites is Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian colony in the Congo. And Hochschild’s To End All Wars, about World War I, is a fascinating work.

In 2009, you published The Clinton Tapes, a very unguarded glimpse into the presidency of your old friend Bill Clinton. What kind of reaction did you get to that book? Not nearly what I had hoped for. I think it’s fair to say that’s a disappointment in my career, because it was intended to make people feel what it’s like to be president—not to be Bill Clinton, but to be president. I guess I naively thought the uniqueness of it—a bird’s-eye view of a president struggling to be candid about things as they were happening—wouldn’t be overwhelmingly politicized. But some people said it was a whitewash of Clinton, and surprisingly, a lot of Clinton supporters said it was a betrayal of him because it showed too many warts. It was an amazing experience for me, and I’m glad I did it. I hope maybe as people gain more perspective on Clinton, that book will hang around.

What are you working on next? I’ve been working for more than a year now to prepare at least one book—maybe two—on James and Dolley Madison. I’ve jumped back a couple of centuries! The civil rights movement puts you in the crucible of the politics and the psychology of democracy, and James and Dolley Madison kind of do that in a different era.

Photograph by J. Brough Schamp.

*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE ARTICLE THAT RAN IN OUR JANUARY 2013 ISSUE

Top 10 Books of 2012

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[TOP FIVE FICTION]

Criminal by Karin Slaughter (Delacorte Press)
Slaughter churns out bestselling crime novels with such frightening frequency, it’s easy to take for granted how talented she is.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “Lucy’s tongue swelled in her mouth. Her vision blurred. It was useless. There was no air left for her lungs. No oxygen going to her brain. She felt herself start to give, her muscles releasing. The back of her head hit pavement. She stared up. The sky was impossibly black, pinholes of stars barely visible. The man stared down at her, the same concerned look in his eyes. Only this time, he was smiling.”

Elza’s Kitchen by Marc Fitten (Bloomsbury)
Fitten’s second stylish Hungarian folktale captures the dreaded ennui of a forty-eight-year-old divorcée and restaurateur who wakes up missing something she can’t quite identify.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “She shook her head at her reflection again. Her skin was sallow and her temples, gray. Her eyes looked sunken in. Her breasts sagged like plastic shopping bags. She tried to force a smile. She pulled her hair back and stuck out her chin. She remembered the younger woman she had been. She thought to herself, I know I am in there. Somewhere. I know I am still here!”

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson (Grand Central Publishing)
In a murder mystery that only Jackson could write—smart, funny, a little twisted—three generations of women cope with the fallout of a sloppily buried secret in Gulf Coast, Mississippi.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “My daughter, Liza, put her heart in a silver box and buried it under the willow tree in our backyard. Or as close to under that tree as she could anyway. The thick web of roots shunted her off to the side, to the place where the willow’s long fingers trailed down. They swept back and forth across the troubled earth, helping Liza smooth away the dig marks.”

The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont (St. Martin’s Press)
In this sparkling debut novel, an associate professor at Agnes Scott College guides her immensely likable teenage protagonist—the Dickensian-named Jason Prosper—through a perfectly rendered world of boarding schools and sailboats.
One Great Passage “What Cal liked best was to spot waves during an upcoming squall. We both understood that it was always best to sail directly into a storm. Never away. When riding into colder water we could feel the surface air cool, the wind slow and back down. Together we’d calibrate the rise, as gale forces cause the edges of crest to break into spindrift.”

A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag by Josh Russell (Dzanc Books)
In this wickedly funny send-up of Puritan-era captivity narratives, scholar Hannah Guttentag lives out her own “captivity”—and redemption—in early-1990s academia.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “Buttery September sun slanted into the basement cafe. I listened to Joanie and Sam and Nat say smart, snide things about TV shows and books and movies and professors, and it became clear to me it would be at times like this . . . that I would live the life of the mind I’d imagined living when I first got the letter from Cornell.”

[TOP FIVE NONFICTION]

Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team by Drew Jubera (St. Martin’s Press)
Veteran journalist Jubera mines storytelling gold in this beautifully crafted book about what high school football can mean to a town. His magnificent portraits of the people of Valdosta are more compelling than anything that happens on the gridiron.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “Beyond a chain-link fence on the other side of the field, a murmuring chorus of parents, retirees, and ex-players idly fingering their championship rings looked on from low wooden bleachers—all of them bunching up and drifting off and then resettling again, like mockingbirds trying to get cozy on a telephone wire.”

My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman (William Morrow)
The surviving Allman brother relives the glory days and the backstage realities of an enduring rock ’n’ roll band in this frank and unfussy autobiography. Allman is at his best when he’s writing about his one true
love: music.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “When you get down to it, I was, and probably still am, the least accomplished musician in the band. By accomplished, I mean as far as theory goes, and scoring and reading music—I do none of those. The other guys in the band know more than I do about that stuff, but most of them don’t know shit about singing.”

The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray (Chelsea Green Publishing)
The author of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood returns to her farming roots with a sweet-hearted vengeance in this exuberant, impassioned call to save our heritage through saving seeds. This book is part memoir, part political manifesto, part botany textbook, and pure Ray.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “On that same farm, the one I roamed as a child eating crabapples and muscadines, pomegranates and sand pears, now the story is Roundup-resistant pigweed growing among rows of genetically modified (GM) soybeans in fields leased to chemical cultivators . . . The sassafras tree my grandfather so carefully skirted with his harrows is dead
and gone.”

Strom Thurmond’s America by Joseph Crespino (Hill and Wang)
Emory University historian Crespino has accomplished something remarkable with this fascinating biography of a despicable political leader (1902–2003). Rather than dismissing Thurmond as a relic, Crespino argues that the late senator was a seminal figure in the rise of modern conservatives.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “[Thurmond] remains today one of the great American hypocrites, yet there is more than just hypocrisy to his story. And the hypocrisies that exist were not just his or the white South’s alone; they were also America’s. Staring these facts in the face is uncomfortable, yet it is what makes our looking all the more essential.”

The World of the Salt Marsh: Appreciating and Protecting the Tidal Marshes of the Southeastern Atlantic Coast by Charles Seabrook (University of Georgia Press)
In a mesmerizing blend of reporting and memoir, longtime environmental journalist Seabrook captures the poetry and the science behind the marshes that he has loved since his childhood on Johns Island, South Carolina.
ONE GREAT PASSAGE “These teeming multitudes can make swimming in a tidal creek slightly unpleasant. Scores of shrimp constantly run into you, their sharp tails and spines pricking your skin like so many little stickpins. If you swim at night, their little red eyes surround you, thousands of tiny points of light darting about like tiny little spooks.”

This article originally appeared in our December 2012 issue.

Josh Russell

In his third novel, A True History of the Captivation, Transport to Strange Lands & Deliverance of Hannah Guttentag (Dzanc Books), Josh Russell puts a wry twist on a genre known as “captivity narrative”—typically a story of someone captured by rather uncivilized enemies. His protagonist Hannah Guttentag’s whip-smart and sexy tale, set in early 1990s academia, is instead about being captivated by such savages as librarians, grad students, and professors. Guttentag visits the strange lands of Nashville, Ithaca, and New Orleans—and her studies include Puritan-era women’s narratives. Russell, forty-three, is a remarkably gifted and unpredictable novelist. He grew up in Normal, Illinois, and graduated from the University of Maryland before getting an MFA at Louisiana State University. He worked as a 7-Eleven clerk, a skateboard salesman, an oyster shucker, and an editorial assistant to NPR commentator and poet Andrei Codrescu before landing at Georgia State University, where he is an associate professor of English and codirector of the respected Creative Writing Program.

“Teaching has allowed me to focus on writing for more than a decade, and that’s been a blessing,” says Russell. “My students are always excited and exciting, and I’m fortunate to spend my time with exciting and excited young artists. Honestly, I can’t think of a better job for a writer.”

Russell on Writing
When and where I write when I can find time and where I can find a quiet spot. Right now the dining room table is my favorite. When I write, I write three pages. If that takes an hour, so be it. If it takes ten minutes, I can go swimming. You’d be surprised how fast those three-page pieces add up.

Fiction vs. nonfiction I knew I wanted to concentrate on being a writer of fiction when I took my first creative writing class at Maryland. Before that, I thought I wanted to be a journalist, but quickly I realized I liked making things up too much to be a journalist. This was back before Fox News.

Literary heroes I’m uneasy with calling people whose books I like “heroes.” Martin Luther King Jr. is a hero. I am a serious fan of the work of Leonard Michaels, Borges, and Nabokov.

Recent literary loves Anne Carson’s Nox, Sarah Goldstein’s Fables, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, and Michael Griffith’s Trophy: A Novel.

Metro Atlanta as a literary hot spot The community is supportive and active to a degree I haven’t seen elsewhere, even in New Orleans, which has a reputation as a literary town. Decatur is wonderful. Last year my kid sat next to Thomas Mullen’s kid in kindergarten. I like to imagine them talking about their dads: “Novelist.” “Mine, too.” “I wish he was a fireman or a lawyer—something more interesting than a boring old novelist.”

The best writing advice he ever got Write the fiction you want to read.

The worst advice Write the fiction you imagine the largest number of people wants to read.

Photograph by Kathryn Russell

Drew Jubera

In South Georgia, high school football lies “somewhere between iconic and mythic,” writes journalist Drew Jubera in his first book, Must Win: A Season of Survival for a Town and Its Team (St. Martin’s Press). Jubera immersed himself in the 2010 football season of Valdosta High School, once the dominant team in the nation. In 2009 the New York Times dispatched Jubera to write about the fallout from a loss to county rival Lowndes High that seemed to mark the official end of the school’s glory days. Jubera realized right away that the story wasn’t just about football, so he spent a year commuting from his home in Atlanta and eventually took up temporary residence in Valdosta.

Must Win is propelled by characters that are way too colorful not to be true. From the troubled senior prodigies to the one-armed superfan named Nub, everybody in town clearly confided in Jubera. The result is a testament not only to storytelling, but to old-fashioned (and time-consuming) reporting, to listening well and writing like crazy. Occasionally the metaphors come as fast and furious as a swarm of South Georgia gnats. But the depth of detail and craftsmanship of a gifted writer at his peak make up for any stumbles.

You don’t have to know a tight end from a Hail Mary to appreciate this book. Consider this irresistible sketch of the irrepressible Nub: “He was all bright squinty eyes and toothy, hidden-agenda grins—a grown-up version of the kid your mother told you over and over not to play with anymore.” On virtually every page, there is a reason to stop, to reread, and to marvel. This is a book worth cheering about.

Photograph by Ellis Vener

Q&A with Emily Giffin

In 2001 Emily Giffin ditched a fledgling law career in Manhattan and set out for London to write fiction. Five bestselling novels and a few million dollars later, that decision looks pretty good. At forty, Giffin and her husband, Buddy Blaha, are doting parents to twin eight-year-old sons Edward and George and daughter Harriet, who turned five in May. The family recently moved into a $5 million Buckhead manse, and Blaha left a top job at Newell Rubbermaid “to smell the roses before gearing up again,” Giffin says. “We recently went to St. Barts for our ten-year anniversary, and he wrote ‘coach’ as his occupation on his immigration document. I’ve never seen him so happy. It really makes me realize how lucky I am to love what I do.”

That search for bliss works its way into many of Giffin’s novels, including her new one, Where We Belong (St. Martin’s Press). Thirty-six-year-old TV producer Marian Caldwell’s life is flipped upside down when an eighteen-year-old girl appears at her doorstep, saying, “I think you’re my mother.”

An interview with the author

The last time we talked was right before the film version of Something Borrowed came out. What did you think of the finished product? It surpassed my expectations, and I thought Kate Hudson and John Krasinski had amazing chemistry. Of course there were things I would have changed, but that will happen in any collaborative process. Overall I think it really captured my characters and the feel and tone of the book. I loved it.

Are there other film projects in the works? Yes, the script for Heart of the Matter, written by Naomi Foner—Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mother—is nearly finished. I met with her recently and was so impressed with her vision for the film. Hilary Swank and Molly Smith are producing. (They produced Something Borrowed and have also optioned Something Blue). The script has also been written for Love the One You’re With. Bruna Papandrea, the producer of Milk, is producing and really wants the film to have a subtle, artsy feel, which I think is perfect for the story.

You’ve done a couple of cameos on a soap opera and in Something Borrowed. Do you enjoy that? Do you have any real acting aspirations? Yes, I really enjoy the glimpse into that world. It’s so fun to be a part of the process, and I think it’s neat for my family, friends, and readers to see me on screen. (Although my kids are still too young to watch a PG-13 movie!) But I have absolutely no acting aspirations—which is fortunate, because I also have zero talent. The director of SOBO, Luke Greenfield, mercilessly mocked me for looking directly into the camera after every take.

You’ve achieved a level of financial success that most novelists can only dream about. Does that increase the pressure when you sit down to write the next book? Or decrease it? The financial aspects of the job are completely divorced from the stress I feel when I sit down to write. It has everything to do with wanting readers to like the new book at least as much as the one before it. I feel a great connection with my readers and would never want to disappoint them. On a much lesser level, I can’t help caring what reviewers think of my work. I have increasingly steeled myself to criticism, but it still can sting, especially when you feel that it is unfair—or that they are judging my book by its cover or by preconceived notions.

When you write, do you have a particular reader in mind? Yes. My mother. We have the same taste in books and movies, and generally the same feeling about people—whether characters or celebrities, friends, and acquaintances. She’s very honest, so if she likes what I’ve written, I feel a little more confident putting it out there to the world.

You have a knack for creating characters that readers really care about. Is that where fiction starts for you? Or do you have a basic plot line in mind? My stories always begin with a very general premise, such as, “What happens if you have a second chance with the one who got away?” or, “Are there any deal breakers when it comes to true love?” The characters come next. And as they interact with one another, the nitty-gritty of the plot and story unfolds.

Do you know the ending when you start a novel? I might think I know it, but I’m almost always wrong.

>> AUDIOBOOK:
Listen to an excerpt from Giffin’s latest novel

What’s the strangest feedback you’ve ever gotten from a reader? Darcy, the heroine of Something Blue, is quite shallow and opinionated. At one point, she commented that she dislikes “gingers,” i.e., men with red hair. I received several emails from fiery redheads who said they were offended by “my” comments. I had to remind them that it is fiction. If I write about a murderer, it doesn’t mean I have a dead body in my trunk. It was also fortunate that I was able to write back and tell them that I once dated a guy with red hair! I’m no Darcy.

In writing fiction, how important are happy endings? I like happy endings and prefer them in books, whether I’ve written them or not. That said, I try to be true to my characters. They really dictate my endings—most of which have been melancholic but hopeful and certainly not tied up neatly with a bow.

Do you believe in happy endings in real life? That’s hard to say. I don’t think that’s something you really believe in. I do hope for them, though. I worry about everything, but I’m an optimist.

You’ve been a journal-keeper for much of your life. Do you keep one nowadays? I don’t—and it’s something that bothers me all the time. But instead, I take photographs. I have over forty albums since my boys were born eight years ago. Everything is documented, just in a different way.

Do you still write mostly in the mornings? Is that your most creative time? Or is the schedule born of necessity? I like to write in the mornings and late at night, when there are fewer distractions. But so much of my work involves the business side of writing. At least half of my hours logged are about marketing, publicity, preparing for a book launch, strategizing, working on social media, etc. I’m grateful to be where I am, but sometimes I miss the days when all I had to worry about was writing my book.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately? The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I love stories about sports. When I was little, I wanted to be a sportswriter, and recently I’ve been given the most exciting (and intimidating) assignment to write the essay for my friend Ralph Sampson for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this fall.

What’s the first book you remember really loving? If we’re talking children’s books, I first fell in love with the Betsy, Tacy, and Tib books by Maud Hart Lovelace. I so hope that they aren’t too old-fashioned for my daughter when it comes time for her to read on her own. As for adult books, the first one I can really remember obsessing over is The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. That book touched me in ways I still can recall.

Did you learn anything in law school that helps you in your writing? No. Ha-ha. But seriously—no.

Photograph by Michael A. Schwarz

*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE ARTICLE THAT RAN IN OUR AUGUST 2012 ISSUE

Summer Reading List

This summer’s nonfiction ranges from the memoirs of a ramblin’ Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to the musings of a civil rights icon to the travelogue of an accidental bird-watcher. New novels set in suburban Atlanta, rural Georgia, Manhattan, small-town Alabama, North Carolina, and a midsize Hungarian city are testaments to the depth and variety of literature happening right here. 

ACROSS THAT BRIDGE by John Lewis (Hyperion)
Atlanta’s longtime congressman renews his call for nonviolent activism and basic civility, revisiting lessons learned more than half a century ago. Having survived more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, when Lewis frets about today’s partisan discourse, he deserves a receptive audience.
First look:
Even I, who have looked down the barrel of a gun with only my faith to defend me, would say there is a unique hostility in these times that almost seems worse to me than we experienced in the 1960s.

THE ARMCHAIR BIRDER GOES COASTAL by John Yow (University of North Carolina Press)
In this delightful follow-up to 2009’s The Armchair Birder, Yow travels beyond his backyard in Acworth. Organized by seasons, Yow’s avian adventures stretch from North Carolina’s Outer Banks, down the coast, and westward along the Gulf of Mexico, blending anecdotes with field notes from top naturalists.
First look:
Seeing us coming, two hundred white pelicans had already removed themselves from the beach and resettled on the water a hundred yards out. As we picked our way carefully along the shoreline, the air was filled with the low murmur of birds yet unseen in the vegetation rising on our left side. Then, sudden as summer thunder, the white ibises arose . . . wheeling low overhead in a churning cloud of white.

MY CROSS TO BEAR by Gregg Allman with Alan Light (William Morrow)
Allman’s solo album Low Country Blues was nominated for Best Blues Album at 2011’s Grammy Awards, where his band was honored with a lifetime achievement award. In his memoir, Allman opens up about his years in Macon (or at least what he can remember of them), his brother’s death, his most famous wife, and all his personal demons. The only constant was a pure, palpable love of making music.
First look:
Basically you state the problem in the first verse, you embellish on the problem in the second verse—like “let me tell what a bitch she really is”—and then you usually have some good music to let you think about them words for a while and also get lifted up by that music.

THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE REDNECK RIVIERA by Harvey H. Jackson III (University of Georgia Press)
A historian at Jacksonville State University focuses on the stretch of coast from Mobile Bay, Alabama, to Panama City, Florida, that grew from a string of small, sparsely populated fishing villages into a vacation mecca for Southern working-class families and spring break bacchanals. The book captures the constantly shifting relationship between the coast and its people.
First look:
Children were not the only harbingers of change. Even though the motels close to the amusements had maintained their reputation as safe places for families to stay, the beach was beginning to attract people who wanted to do more than swim, play Goofy Golf, fish a little, eat seafood fried or raw, and go home with a carved coconut head.

THE WORLD OF THE SALT MARSH by Charles Seabrook (University of Georgia Press)
For more than three decades, Seabrook has traveled the world writing about science and the environment for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In this book, he takes a very personal—but still beautifully reported—journey as he explores the Southeastern U.S. coast, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Cape Canaveral, Florida. A native of Johns Island, South Carolina, Seabrook delves into natural history and ecological threats without letting the poetry of the marsh get lost in the science.
First look:
I spent half my childhood trying to get off an island. I have spent half my adulthood trying to get back.

CARING IS CREEPY by David Zimmerman (Soho Press)
In this relentless psychological thriller, fifteen-year-old Lynn Marie Sugrue escapes her bleak reality by flirting online with a young soldier. When he gets in trouble on base and flees to the girl’s home in rural Georgia, a bad situation turns really disturbing. Lynn keeps him in a storage space accessible only through her closet, even as her mother’s boyfriend sinks deeper into criminal activities that put the entire household at risk. The author grew up in Atlanta and teaches now at Iowa State.
First look:
So this is August of 2005 in Metter, Georgia, population half of nothing. A million miles from anywhere good. So this is me and Dani, just turned fifteen and a couple weeks away from our sophomore year at Metter High. So this is me f—ing up my life like you wouldn’t believe.

ELZA’S KITCHEN by Marc Fitten (Bloomsbury)
Fitten returns to the Hungary he depicted so brilliantly in his debut novel, Valeria’s Last Stand (2009), for another fable of midlife passion and rekindled purpose. Forty-eight-year-old divorcee Elza runs a respectable restaurant in the city of Delibab, serving up Hungarian classics and missing something she can’t quite identify. The author lived in Hungary in his twenties, when that country was going through tremendous political and cultural change. His characters capture a time and a place while still being absolutely magical.
First look:
Elza arrived at the woeful conclusion that the last time she could remember feeling truly hopeful about life was a staggering twenty years prior—when her skin was a touch more elastic, her hair was uncolored, she was newly freed from a bad marriage, and her future spilled out around her like a tipped-over bag of flour.

I COULDN’T LOVE YOU MORE by Jillian Medoff (Grand Central Publishing/Five Spot)
Eliot, a middle-aged working mom in a precariously blended family, has a chance encounter with her long-lost first love, Finn, that sets off a series of crises (real and existential) that threaten her carefully calibrated life in the Atlanta suburbs. Midway through the novel, a family day at the beach takes a nasty, slightly melodramatic turn that puts everything in perspective for Eliot. Life is all about choices, made and unmade.
First look:
At the beginning of my daughter’s princess party, right before Cinderella is scheduled to arrive, my sister Sylvia announces, apropos of nothing, that she is going blind.

SAVING RUTH by Zoe Fishman (William Morrow Paperbacks)
In her second novel, Fishman draws inspiration from her own childhood—growing up Jewish in Alabama—to spin a coming-of-age tale that has a little of everything: racial tension, sibling love-hate, even an eating disorder. Ruth Wasserman and her soccer-star brother come home from their respective colleges for the summer to take up their regular lifeguarding duties. When a little girl nearly sinks on their watch, long-held secrets start their inevitable rise. The author, who now lives in Atlanta, has a deft touch with the details of childhood.

First look:
I wondered if my old Barbies were hiding in there, with their botched haircuts and chewed-up feet. My appetite for those minuscule hunks of malleable plastic had been insatiable. By the time I had been done with a Barbie, she was hairless and crippled.

SEVEN WAYS TO DIE by William Diehl with Kenneth John Atchity (AEI/Story Merchant Books)
Before he died in 2006, Diehl (Sharky’s Machine and Primal Fear) had written more than 400 pages of his tenth novel, about a captain in the NYPD on the trail of a serial killer in Manhattan. Using an outline and notes that Diehl left behind, Atchity finished the thriller, staying very true to the fast-paced, screenplay-ready plot that was the author’s trademark. It’s a fitting posthumous tribute to the former journalist—and first managing editor of Atlanta magazine—who left his day job in his fifties to pursue his dream of writing fiction.
First look:
As always his psyche was momentarily askew. He performed each autopsy compassionately. They were constant reminders of the finite line between life and death, between the human body and a corpse without a soul.

SPRING FEVER by Mary Kay Andrews (St. Martin’s Press)
The ninth in a shelf full of crowd-pleasing novels from the chick-lit maven of Avondale Estates is set in Passcoe, North Carolina. Annajane Hudgens is so over her ex-husband that she shows up for his wedding to the horribly perfect Celia. Fate intervenes in the unlikely form of a child’s ailing appendix, which halts the wedding and makes Annajane (and her ex) start thinking about second chances.
First look:
“Don’t kid yourself that he’s had a change of heart, Annajane dear. One little night apart won’t hurt me. Because he’ll be sharing my bed for years and years to come,” Celia gloated. She stepped aside and held the bathroom door open with a flourish. “And don’t bother to wait on an invitation to the wedding. This time, it’s strictly a private FAMILY affair.”

Teresa Weaver is one of our editorial contributors.
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