My Youth in the South
I’m an 8th generation South Carolinian and grew up in my mother’s hometown of Orangeburg, South Carolina. During my childhood my grandmother, Big Lurline, would often tell me stories about our family who had lived in the area for many decades. My favorite was one she told about her father who both owned a country store and doctored on people.
Late one afternoon, great-grandfather had ridden many miles to treat a man who had taken ill. By the time great-grandfather had finished tending to the patient, the dark night of the South Carolina low country had fallen. Riding his faithful horse, Molly, he picked his way through the pine forest, yet in the darkness became lost. Far in the distance—then closer and closer—he heard the howling of wolves. Not a moment before the wolves pounced, great-grandfather put his head down to Molly’s ear and said, “Home, Molly, home!” Faithful Molly took off like a shot and galloped through the forest, chased by howling wolves.
Did they arrive home safe and sound? Yes, they did. There are no wolves in South Carolina.
Growing up and listening to these improbable stories made me an heir to the wonderful oral tradition which has so defined the South and Southern writers. Like many a defining folkway, it appears more interesting to those who study it than to those who live it.
This oral tradition consists of everyone in the family talking–all the time. To be part of this oral tradition, you can’t just talk for twenty or thirty minutes a day about who was pregnant before marriage or some distant cousin who once took a sleeping pill and within weeks became a heroin addict. Anyone can do that. No, you have to be able to talk the bark off a tree. Everyday. That’s why so many Southerners have turned to writing. We’re trying to get away from our relatives who won’t shut up.
I graduated from Orangeburg High School in 1973. I only did things I wanted to do and that annoyed lots of people. I was different and difficult and didn’t pay attention to anyone. The reason: I saw the world very differently from others both then and now. Why? My illusions about life were sandblasted off of me by the death of my parents and grandparents.
My mother was the last to die, of cancer. I was sixteen. Suddenly all the truths I heard most of my young life–“everything usually works out for the best,” or “your mother will always be there for you,” and all the rest of it were proven untrue. And so if those bedrock things weren’t true, then what else wasn’t true? Well, a lot. Because life stripped me of my illusions so young, I have always seen the world very clearly and very differently from most people. I sometimes wish I didn’t. All of that combined with my unusual personality and my innate writing ability has made me the writer that I am.
After graduating from high school I matriculated and even graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans. To say I attended would imply far more involvement with the university than I ever had. I don’t function well in highly structured environments and college was no exception. I couldn’t stand it. I never went to class. I read novels and history, played cards and drank beer and vodka and wine and smoked tobacco and marijuana. The only reason I graduated was most exams were written which played to my greatest strength.
Two loves from childhood which have stayed with me throughout my life: history and writing. And when I say “history,” I don’t mean the boring dates and places where something happened a long time ago–I mean what was life like for people? Did they fall in and out of love? What did they eat? What obstacles did they overcome? What psychological and social barriers limited them? Why did they do the things they did? However inexplicable, the things that people do makes sense to them. And it was the combination of those two loves and living in New Orleans (a very supportive venue for artists and writers and musicians) that led me to first write the drafts of what became An Honorable German.
In 2007, by sheer happenstance, a friend took my manuscript to Deborah Grosvenor, a literary agent in Washington who had both a great reputation and a great love of historical naval fiction. She liked my novel a lot and asked to represent me. Since she had discovered the novelist Tom Clancy she came with immense credibility.
Knowing this was my chance to fulfill my life long dream and see my novel published, I quit my permanent employment to focus on rewriting and revising An Honorable German which I thought I could do in six months. Deborah wanted me to “enrich the tapestry,” as she called it. To enrich a tapestry involves unweaving the tapestry until it is in a thousand strands on your living room floor, which is what I did with An Honorable German. It took me almost two years to reweave the tapestry and go through the process of editing the manuscript with my editor.