September 11th, 2011
Sticking to the Cemetery by Niles Reddick
Most of my writing experiences have been pleasant ones. Places where I’ve spoke or read and did book-signings, like the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, or the Cherokee Arts Festival outside Atlanta in Canton, were surprisingly fun. I enjoyed meeting folks, talking to people, answering their questions, and I always learn something. I don’t know that I ever had any major mistakes, blunders, or even catastrophes with my writing (the occasional grammatical error that didn’t get caught in drafts or galleys), but there have been times when I felt potential disaster was looming nearby and didn’t know how to respond or what to say to others who asked me questions or made comments about my books.
The first time I recall this was when Road Kill Art and Other Oddities was first published. Somehow, readers tend to make a psychological connection with stories and characters and will often tell you their own stories at a book-signing event or conference. I recall one fellow coming up to me and saying he really enjoyed my stories and he had white-trash relatives, too, and then launched into some strange, and what I would consider, white-trash stories. I was appalled. I had never written anything in my stories about white-trash anything and certainly nothing about my relatives or friends being that way (much of this collection was based on true stories, just embellished). I didn’t understand the connection he’d made, and I really didn’t quite know what to say other than, “That’s great. You really ought to write that story yourself,” and I was thrilled another person wanting me to sign her book appeared out of nowhere.
The second time I felt there could be a looming disaster was when I was speaking to a college class about writing, and the students had read a selection from my short story collection. One student wanted to know about my treatment of women in my stories, that it seemed as if I was making fun of women. For a moment, I said nothing. What I was thinking was, “You’ve got to be kidding me. First of all, you’ve only read one story, if that. Before you become a book critic, perhaps you should write something yourself.” What I said was: “I feel I treated all of my characters the same way. Sure, I make fun of some of these eccentric women, but they are based on my family members and friends and I love them and admire their eccentricities, and I give the eccentric men equal time in the book, which you’ll see when you read it.”
The last time I recall the disastrous feelings looming was when Lead Me Home first came out a couple of years back. I had moved to Southern Georgia and had been on a couple of TV shows, in some area newspapers, and so on as part of the initial book splash. I don’t recall which now, but one of the interviewers asked me where I got the names of my characters—the Peacock family—and I told him that I based the surname on my father’s paternal grandmother’s family, and part of the novel was set in the small town of Pavo (latin for Peacock) named for them and where they lived. Of course, I did this to honor them, in some small way, and I received letters and multiple phone calls from people who wanted to correct me about the geography of the area, the history of the town, people who wanted to know if I knew so-and-so, people who wanted to know if I knew this or that about my relatives, and so on. Of course, none of them bought the book to read! I was stunned. First of all, it was fiction and so none of these people were real family members (I honestly did not know one member of that side of the family) and even the locations in the book did not really exist but were bits and pieces of locations from my own experiences. Sure I had driven through Pavo in my lifetime, and it looked just like every other small, rural town in America. I did the best I could in responding to their calls and letters and after a month or so of the initial sensationalism, it wore off, thank goodness. Next book, I’m sticking to the cemetery for names because those folks won’t come after you like the live ones do. I do know, though, controversy can sell books, and I’m trying to come up with one that will help sell the next book!