When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
I guess I knew all my life but I wasn't able to articulate it. I identified so strongly with writers in books and on TV. Jo March in Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, independent girls who grow up to be writers. My daddy used to go around to the library when they'd be getting rid of books and he'd bring me home boxes. And then John Boy Walton came along and would sit in his window writing on his tablet. I didn't know if I wanted to be John Boy or marry John Boy.
Did your parents write at all?
I come from more of an oral storytelling tradition. My mother's side of the family, they can tell a story better than anybody. I'm not that great a talker, but if I write it down, I can take my time and revise it.
How did you become a fiction writer?
My grandma died and she had always been the person that told me stories. There was nobody to tell me stories anymore; I had to tell them to myself. After Christmas that year, I got a flier in the mail from the local community college and there was a little notice on the front that they were offering a creative writing class. I heard my grandma's voice in my head saying, "If you're going to do it, do it. Otherwise, shut up about it."
Are you a Southern writer?
Yes. You worry about people calling you a Southern writer because you don't want to limit yourself. I consider what I do very universal. God is in the details and the universal is in the specifics. I've talked to people from all over, New York and Michigan and California, and they can all relate to Southern fiction. I think the real difference comes more between rural and urban than the regional differences.
What are you trying to do with your writing?
Number one for me is to honor my people. I want to tell the stories of the people I come from because they work too hard and they're never going to sit down and write them, but that doesn't mean they don't need to be preserved. I read this interview with Pat Conroy and he said he wrote about his mama because nobody else would and she deserved to be written about.
Why do you write fiction in the 21st century when so many people are turning to memoir and nonfiction?
I've always liked to tell a good lie, and fiction is getting paid to tell good lies. I like being suspended in that world where I know it's all make-believe and I don't care. There's so much more possibilities in fiction for invention and play.
Who do you write about?
Working class people like the people that I come from. One of the things that used to irk me about Southern fiction was you had Gone With the Wind on one end of the spectrum -- the Southern belles -- and then on the other end, Tobacco Road -- the slatterns and trashy people. I wanted to write about those people in the middle, just average people who go to work every day, come home, raise their kids, do the best they can. It might not make a movie of the week, but I think the details of ordinary people's lives are fascinating.
Did it take much convincing for you to write about your people?
Not once I found out you could do that. I read romance novels all the time so that's what I tried to write. I'd get about 50 pages in and it would just sort of fizzle. You've got to write those sex scenes, and I love to read them, but I'd just get there and think, "Oh God, Mama's going to read this." I was working at a bookshop at Chapel Hill in "84 and this girl said, "You want to be a writer? You ought to buy her books "cause she writes like you talk." She was pointing to this woman, and it was Lee (Smith). I read Oral History and the light came on, and I thought, "Oh man, these are my people. This sounds like my grandma talking. This is what I want to do." Once I found it, there was no looking back.