In his decades of writing and editing in Atlanta, Charles McNair developed a reputation for both Southern gentility and a riotous, sometimes scathing imagination. His debut novel, Land O’ Goshen was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and his second, Pickett’s Charge, was up for the Townsend Prize. Now living in Bogota, Colombia, he has just published his third novel, The Epicureans, a darkly original feat of the imagination. McNair sat down with Atlanta magazine to talk shop. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The first striking thing about this book is its aesthetic design. It resembles an “objet d’art” in a museum, with creamy pages too thick to dog-ear. Tell us a little about that process.
This electrifying book design sprang from the mind of Jason Killingsworth, founder of Tune & Fairweather, a publishing start-up in Dublin, Ireland. Jason worked with an equally brilliant designer, Andrew Hind, and a talented accomplice, Matt Eglinnton. After reading the book multiple times, they conceived a cover image truly fit for an Epicurean—a faux Willow china pattern plate with a twist. Scary medieval images drawn from chapters in the book fill the plate, and mysterious emblems and symbols tease the eye everywhere. They put full-page illustrated plates into the text . . . and there’s even a bookmark ribbon to save a reader’s place when he or she needs to stop for breath.
When I saw the design for the first time, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. My tiny fiction-writer brain would never, ever, have been able to conceptualize this novel so beautifully. I’m extra proud because my novel is Tune & Fairweather’s first fiction title. History!
This narrative is a mash-up of so many genres—fairy tales, suspense, class consciousness, Southern Gothic flourishes. How would you sum up this feat of imagination in a few paragraphs to someone who is looking for the next novel to read.
The Epicureans tells of a billionaire dining club that gathers on the winter solstice each year in a secret place to partake of a lavish, forbidden meal: They eat children.
One of The Epicureans, the antagonist of our story, runs a small Alabama town in addition to his global industries, sprawling networks, and vast land holdings. He’s host of the next winter solstice, and he has his evil eye on twin children of a struggling, troubled, good-hearted—and separated—dad and mom in fictional Lafayette. The Rogers family has no clue that the most evil villain is coming for the kids. Can they be saved?
This novel is a very tender portrait of fatherhood—perhaps an affirming foil to Pat Conroy’s Great Santini. Tell us how the dynamics of parenthood influenced you?
My own child came to the world when I was 40, when being a father was what I finally wanted more than anything else in the world. Raising a kid is the most humbling experience I know; just when you think you’re pretty darned smart, along comes this little soul wrapped in new skin, and you realize you’ve never known anything really important before in your whole life.
That’s been the core of my attitude as a parent—just try to learn, try to teach, try to survive, try to help the loved ones survive. Try to do your best, against all odds of success. Try to help the child believe anything is possible.
I put great thought into Elmore Rogers, the father of these two threatened kids in The Epicureans. I set out to write a book with a dad whose goodness and love just might save a family and save the day. Dads like that are rare in fiction, aren’t they? Atticus Finch. Bob Cratchit. That unnamed dad in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I wanted to create a steadfast, memorable dad like those.
You serialized this novel for The Bitter Southerner in the tradition of Charles Dickens and Truman Capote. While you were writing, you were in the midst of a fraught, divisive political season. Is this book in any way political?
I didn’t once think of this book as political when I was writing it. I wrote the first chapter long before QAnon was an evil twinkle in some sick eye.
The last 13 chapters in this book were written with a deadline gun to my temple. (The Bitter Southerner published one chapter a week for 41 weeks during 2018-19). I sent Chuck Reece, my editor during serialization, a chapter on Sunday each week. A new chapter was due the next Sunday for 13 straight Sundays, and all I could see were blank pages ahead of me. I had no conception at all of how the book would end. But with a mighty leap I kept the pen moving. Things fell into place. It somehow, in my biased opinion, turned out to be my best book so far.
How has the South influenced you as a writer?
I came into the world in a Dothan, Alabama, hospital that was really an old two-story frame house. A bowl of red January camellias glowed by the bed where I was born. I grew up on a dirt street with 100 acres of woods behind the house—the greatest gift a writer could ever pray to have.
I fed chickens and nursed a terrible series of calves and wrung necks and dug rows for peas. I played baseball in a field and ate blackberries I picked red-handed off the sticker vines. I shelled peas and suffered yellow jackets and ran from snakes and wrote my name in fingernail polish on the shells of turtles. I buried pets under pine trees and swatted gnats and threw dirt clods and rode my bike down twisty paths in the woods and told ghost stories and went to sleep to the nightly moan of a freight train, and sometimes pulled the covers over my head scared that the Devil was dancing around that hobo campfire down in the woods.
Does that answer the question?