Local writers bring their towns to life
Like Faulkner or Irving, these scribes evoke their locales - on a smaller scale.
SANTA BARBARA, CALIF. — There they were, "Sky" and "...and the Sea," deliberately placed for a National Poetry Month display beside the works of legends. Two slim volumes by a local writer sharing shelf space at Chaucer's Books with Robert Frost and e.e. cummings.
Christopher Buckley may not be one of America's most widely read poets (and, no, he's not the author of "Thank You for Smoking"). But his poems and essays about growing up here have their share of local fans because they capture the essence of Santa Barbara. He tells of watching people dressed as Spaniards riding horses down State Street - the strange, annual ritual of the Fiesta Parade. He writes about Camino Cielo, "this road to the sky" with "cloud-shaped trees." And, of course, the endless beaches.
Some writers synonymous with their locales reach audiences far beyond their town lines: Anne Rice's vampire tales set in New Orleans; Stephen King and John Irving, both New Englanders; William Faulkner and the Deep South.
Then there are those like Buckley, writers you've probably never heard of. They chronicle the quirks and rhythms, the people and landscapes of the places they know best. And for their ability to articulate what makes a hometown home, they matter to their communities.
There may be no better example of the close relationship between a community and its writers than Oxford, Miss. The town of 12,000 has a literary history that claims Faulkner - though he was born elsewhere. They elected the owner of the local bookstore mayor. Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet who lives in town, calls Square Books the "epicenter" of the community - "the artistic heart and also the social center." After a recent potluck, the host returned her guests' plates to the bookstore for their owners to pick up.
It's also played a role in deepening the friendship between Ms. Fennelly's husband, novelist Tom Franklin, and Lawrence "Lucky" Tucker, a young Oxford lawyer. Mr. Tucker met Franklin in 1999 when he was working at a bookstore in Jackson, Miss. He'd come across Franklin's first book "Poachers," a collection of Gothic short stories, and read it in anticipation of the author stopping through town on tour.
"A few of the stories really resounded with me," says Tucker. "I felt a connection to the characters, the places, the descriptions he was making."
Their friendship is one grown from proximity. Franklin recently gave Tucker the manuscript for his latest book, "Smonk," billed as a "southern" (as opposed to a western). Franklin wanted the opinion of one of his most trusted readers. "It was a huge compliment," says Tucker.
Certainly this sort of accessibility helps make a hometown writer a local favorite. Linda Myers, executive director of the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, says writers who lead workshops at the Loft strengthen their relationship with readers. Actively mentoring other writers has helped some local poets expand their "poetry fan base," she says.
But she says there may be another reason why local poets become popular: "Poetry, more than any other literary form, is best appreciated when it is read aloud - particularly when it is read by the poet him or herself."
Because publishing houses rarely send poets on reading tours, it's the locals who are able to connect with their communities in this way.
Sometimes it's something smaller that draws a reader in: the simple pleasure of unfurling a page to discover a local landmark. Even finding a street name or a familiar tree - Buckley's descriptions of State Street, Santa Barbara's iconic main drag or "the cliff over Butterfly Beach where the cypresses lean seaward" - help a reader relate to a story.
By confronting a shattering moment in a small town's past, one contemporary New England writer found a way to help his community come to terms with it.
Shortly after the first black family moved to Irasburg, Vt., in 1968, a car drove past their home and fired a shotgun into it. Rather than investigate the shooters, though, the police launched a spurious investigation into the minister who had been targeted. His family was eventually driven out of town.
It was something you'd have expected of Mississippi in the 1930s, not New England in the '60s, says author Howard Frank Mosher. He hesitated before making it the subject of his 1989 book, "A Stranger in the Kingdom."
"I was very concerned about the community's reaction," he says. But "you couldn't be a novelist and live right down the street from where the incident happened and not write about it."
Mr. Mosher has been living in and writing about Vermont's Northeast Kingdom for 42 years. And he's been reading his stories at the Galaxy Bookstore in Hardwick for about that long.
"When I go to read and talk at the bookstore," he says, "I'm really talking to my friends and neighbors - the people who inspired characters in my fiction, even though they don't always know that, which is just as well."
These writers take pride in capturing the character and culture of the areas about which they write. Their writing is deeply entwined with place because they are.
Mosher tried once to leave Irasburg. He and his wife lasted two days in southern California before they were told by someone who recognized their green license plates: "I'm from Vermont, too. Go home while you can." So they did.
Fennelly, a midwestern native, wrote a 15-page poem that used Kudzu, the Asian vine that thrives in the South, as a metaphor for herself - another "very successful transplant."
They've found the same thing that Buckley did.
During a teaching stint in Pennsylvania - what he calls an "exile" in that "gulag of ice and snow" - he came to realize his true subject was home. His latest book "Sleepwalk" is a collection of essays that picks up with his teenage years in Santa Barbara.
"Place is all important for me," he says. "I consider that I was very, very fortunate to grow up in Santa Barbara. That gave me my themes - loss of Eden and the importance of home."