Margaret Eby explores the hometowns and stomping grounds of 10 Southern authors in her literary travelogue, South Toward Home.
What made you decide to write this book?
The idea for this book originated with a piece I wrote for the Paris Review Daily about Eudora Welty’s house. After her death, her once fabulous back garden had fallen into disrepair, but a team of Welty enthusiasts restored the place partially using passages from Welty’s fiction and letters to envision the garden as it once was. That got me thinking about the way that fictional places and real places overlap, particularly in Southern fiction.
What makes the South so tempting as a literary destination?
For me, it’s because many of the writers I researched are part of our fairly recent history, which means that there are still people in these small Southern towns that knew them, or at least know their relatives. If you go to Jackson and start asking about Eudora Welty, pretty soon you’ll have half a dozen people with dinner party stories about her, or an offer to introduce you to her hairdresser. The memorials aren’t these museum-ified, airless things, they’re living parts of the fabric of that town.
You grew up in Alabama but now live in Brooklyn. As a former Southerner, what sort of emotions does a return arouse?
It’s funny. Even though at this point, I’ve lived away from the South for about a decade, every time I go back there, it’s a relief. It’s still home to me—it’s where my parents live, and where many of my good friends are, and I’ll always carry it with me. But it’s also a place with a lot of baggage and a history of real violence. Both those things were inescapable while I was doing my research—the pleasure of the place is hard to separate from the weight of its history.
Did your travels change your perspective on any of the authors?
Absolutely. I think one of the most touching parts of my research was talking to Harry Crews’ cousin. Crews styled himself as this macho, hyper-masculine author, but to his cousin, he was his prankster relative who he once tricked into peeing onto an electric fence.
Did you do a lot of research or just hit the road and go with your gut?
It was definitely a combination. I knew which sites I wanted to go to, and I read up a lot about the writers and the places they wrote about before I set off anywhere, but some of the things I found were strokes of pure luck. Like meeting Crews’ cousin—that was thanks to a combination of Crews’ longtime friend and biographer and the kindness of a traveling furniture salesman/preacher.
If you could do a sequel, which authors would you include?
I’d love to write about Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Anne Porter and take a look at Cormac McCarthy’s Knoxville, Tennessee, before he decamped for the Southwest. I’d also love to write about Ellen Douglas, a really underrated Mississippi writer.
If one of the authors could have magically appeared during one of your visits, which one would you pick?
Oh, man. I think it has to be John Kennedy Toole, just because I’d want to fill him in on the success of A Confederacy of Dunces and ask him about his life. Plus, I hear he could drink a mean Sazerac.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of South Toward Home.
This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.