Author Susan Kelly: Saturdays in the South

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Today, please welcome author Susan Kelly to The Introverted Reader. She’s a fellow North Carolinian!

By Accident

As a senior in boarding school, in the very Southern city of Richmond, Virginia, I took a course titled “Southern Fiction,” and, as my teacher later described it, “fell into a hole,” which she intended as a high compliment. The hole wasn’t The Confessions of Nat Turner, but Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I can still quote chunks of it. Two decades later, my own Southern fiction was being published.

What makes fiction Southern? Is it references to grits and K-Marts and “mama’n’em,” what I like to term red clay realism? Am I a Southern author because I wrote in How Close We Come, that “the discarded Christmas trees in the curb look like tipped over Southern belles, upended, with their underwear and petticoats showing”? An audience member once told me she was certain I was Midwestern, because my characters are candid, if not downright blunt. (If Midwesterners are blunt, that was news to me.)

Al Hirschfield, the pen-and-ink illustrator, famously includes his daughter’s name, Nina, in every drawing he creates. You have to search for it within his strokes. In each of my novels, I’ve included the phrase “necessary sadness,” and for me, that’s the essence of Southern fiction. How to define “necessary sadness”? Well, it’s a bit like looking for new wallpaper: you might not be able to describe it, but you’ll know it when you see it.

Necessary sadness is the current of bittersweet, of rue, if you will, that runs through our lives. It’s about letting go while holding fast. Knowing what to keep from something—a memory, a death, a way of life, a loss of innocence – and knowing what must be yielded to, or discarded. Think of To Kill A Mockingbird, the novels of Lewis Nordan, Robb Forman Dew, Elizabeth Spencer, even the early works of Capote, and yes, yes, William Faulkner. And, humbly my own. Twin themes of regret and soldiering on thread through them all.

Perhaps it’s cultural, this necessary sadness; endemic to our our history, our mannerisms, our memories, our expectations, our very geography of tobacco and cotton and kudzu. In Absalom, Absalom! Shreve McCannon demands of his roommate Quentin Compson, Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.

But we keep on keeping on. And writing about it.

Susan Kelly

About Susan Kelly

Susan Stafford Kelly graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of By Accident and the novels Now You Know, The Last of Something, Even Now, and How Close We Come, winner of the Carolina Novel Award and an alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club. Susan lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband and three children.

Thank you, Susan! I enjoyed your thoughtful post!

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  1. Hi Becky!
    Oh my….. the grammar school writing.I still have some very bad poetry from those days. I seemed to write about losing innocence — and I was about 9 years old. Sheesh. Still miss Rulfton, and drove through there just last week. As Willa Cather said, "There are all those early memories; one cannot get another set."

  2. Thank you for featuring Susan. I enjoyed this very much. I grew up with Susan and most remember her as a voracious reader and the books she would write and craft covers for when she was in grammer school. Great talent from North Carolina! Love Malaprops too!

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