WAG: Kudzu was imported into the South and
pretty much took over--and now the title of your
latest essay collection, Cathedrals of Kudzu,
celebrates it. I happened to notice that, over the
years, you've occasionally lived outside the South
yourself. Is there any similarity between yourself
and the kudzu of which you write?
I'm kind of a mixed breed. My father's family was
from Greensboro, North Carolina, and my mother's
family was from Boston. So I really am a hybrid.
But I think having the Other in your experience—being
sort of a half outsider—gives you a better
vantage point to understand certain things.
I grew up on naval bases mostly
in the South and then went away and came back again
when I was in my thirties. I've lived in the South
about three-quarters of my life, and I believe I
remember kudzu from my childhood. It's been here
longer than I have.
The image that's in the book actually
came from a very specific thing that happened to
me one morning up in Kentucky. I'd been up pretty
late the night before, and when I woke up and looked
out the window, here were these enormous buttresses
and spires. It looked like the Cathedral of Notre
Dame covered with leaves. And I thought, Good
God—who knows what's under there. It was
just an image I couldn't get away from.
Is the South a rich source of material for you?
It really is. There were some things I had ideas
about that were misconceptions and memories that
weren't quite accurate memories. But of course,
I married a Southern writer and came to live in
the midst of a whole group of Southern writers in
North Carolina, so I've been educated by the experts
over a period of time.
It turns out to be a more and
more fascinating thing. The South is the only place
in the United States where people think of themselves
in a constantly, distinctly regional way. Of course,
there's been a lot of theories about that—whether
it was the fault of the Civil War or the Industrial
Revolution, and so forth. But it's so true: the
more you lay that over the way people behave down
here, the more it fits.
How does the South affect a writer's storytelling
The narrative voice is something most Southerners
grow up with. Maybe it's just the length of time
they spent in the hot weather, not moving too much,
long before television and air conditioning, trying
to amuse themselves out there with their fans and
so on. I'm not sure how it came about—porches,
You think of the porch as associated
with the South. You can go through communities in
other parts of the country sometimes for hours without
seeing anyone sitting on a porch.
You were an editor at Time and wrote screenplays,
but now you concentrate primarily on the personal
essay. Could you tell us a little bit about that
I think everyone's medium evolves over the years,
if you're lucky enough to move towards what you
like best. I was a reporter and a section editor
for both Time and Newsweek for a number
of years, and the problem there was a limited scope
for my opinion. And I am very opinionated.
I think I might have been a preacher if I was something
other than a journalist.
For years, it frustrated me. I
remember when I covered the Angela Davis case for
Time: everything I said about Ronald Reagan
had to be rewritten and rewritten and rewritten.
I was slipping in what I thought were incredible
digs at this man, and every one of them was rooted
out and thrown away by the editors.
Over the years, the pressure kind
of built up, and when I came back to North Carolina
and started a paper with a partner in Raleigh, all
of a sudden I was a columnist who had no one to
second-guess him. I became first a very outspoken
columnist, a very angry one, back in the early Eighties.
Then it kind of evolved into more of a philosophical,
hopefully literary kind of essay.
It was very much a long evolution,
and the kinds of things I do now have a lot to do
with John Grisham and Marc Smirnoff at The Oxford
American giving me all that lovely space and
just letting me do as I please.
One of the essays you include in Cathedrals of
Kudzu is about political correctness. Why are
we so afraid of words today?
It has to do with a positive thing, which
is the empowerment of minorities—'minorities'
being defined broadly as liberals, in some cases,
like college professors and certain types of people
who feel like underdogs because of their politics.
Once they came into power, they found the first
thing they could influence was speech and media,
unfortunately. Basically, in this country or any
kind of democracy, if you have the power, you will
use it, both wisely and unwisely. Now, I ask this
question in my essay: is the kind of thing we have
with political correctness--this terrible controlling
of speech--is it worse than what came before? Of
course, it's not. It's not worse than racism and
misogyny and homophobia.
But it's worse for writers.
And that's the point I was trying to make. In my
profession, it's the worst thing there is because
if you write something and you know you're offending
a large group of people (including your peers),
it's a kind of constant, subtle censorship that
operates on you all the time. If you've read the
piece, you know how much I loathe it.
The other problem for progressive
people is that if you do some of these really
unnecessary and ridiculous thought control tricks,
you make liberals and progressive people look silly—look
non-serious—which is something, considering
the state of the media anyway, we don't need.
Is it tougher to be a liberal these days?
I'm considered conservative in a number of areas
myself. I guess that's one of the reasons that my
syndicated column has always been pretty hard to
find compared to, say, George Will: I tend to cross
up editors who expect me to go one way or the other.
But I do consider myself a progressive on most major
issues, and I do feel that the progressives are
on the defensive.
There's been an attitude ever
since the Reagan years that it's all right to be
totally selfish and callous and to aggrandize and
enrich yourself and not apologize. For some reason--maybe
because most of the media are owned by enormous
corporations—the progressive, the liberal,
has to defend himself and explain why his views
He's on the defensive, in a funny
One of my favorite essays in the collection is about
the great Southern poet, James Dickey. There's been
a lot of controversy lately over the fact that he
might have led what is referred to euphemistically
as an invented life: he created the myth of James
Dickey. Is that such a bad thing?
It's a bad thing for his family and friends, but
I think it's almost natural for creative writers.
If you go through the history of major figures,
they all lied. Hemingway lied. Faulkner lied.
André Malraux made up so many biographies
that when he died, they had to sort them out. Even
his best friends didn't know the true facts of his
life. It's their native impulse-particularly so
for a poet or a novelist. I can't deny that I've
felt that impulse myself.
In the case of Dickey, he believed
that art justified everything, and he thought of
his life as art. He came up with a new version of
himself every day.
On a larger scale, it's one of
the problems we have now: we have this tremendous
emphasis on personalities, with everyone writing
their memoirs. Sometimes it seems like there's almost
more interest in the individual than in the things
he's written. That's a terrible problem. If you
didn't know who Dickey was and you just came to
the poems, you'd be stunned. Yet at a certain point
in his career—because of the way he lived,
either because he made a fool of himself or offended
people gratuitously—critics were condescending
to him. Not in any way because of what he wrote
but because of the way he behaved.
You're married to Lee Smith, one of the South's
better-known novelists. Do you ever bounce ideas
off each other and decide who's going to attack
a particular issue?
We definitely do, actually. It helps a great deal.
She's a great reader, and she's someone who appreciates
the mainstream, popular view and lets me know when
I've gone over the top, when I'm too angry or when
I'm—at least in her opinion—a little
arrogant about my opinion. She says, "Well,
that may be true, but that really won't fly."
And what I supply her is something that she has
no respect or regard for whatsoever, which is fact.
She writes five-hundred-page novels and then I have
to go back and say, "Well, it was '41 that
was Pearl Harbor, and it was the same year that
Joe DiMaggio hit the fifty-six consecutive games,
and the Berlin Olympics were in 1936, etc. And so
we do help each other a great deal. We're both good
readers of each other.
You can't really live with someone,
I think, if you compete with them in an unhealthy
way—I think that's something that could destroy
almost any relationship. I think if I were a novelist
or she were an essayist, it might be a little more
difficult. But I'm not about to try to write a novel.
You've written screenplays in the past.
Yeah, I have. I can't say I did that out of my native
impulse—maybe more out of the fact that at
that time, I needed a lot of child support in a
hurry, and it was a very good, quick way to make
money. But I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I went
to Los Angeles in a very interesting time, in the
late Seventies, early Eighties. I did a few things
I was proud of and a lot of things I was ashamed
of. I picked up a talent for dialogue, probably,
but I'm not ready to test that out.
I think a novel takes a certain
kind of writer, a writer who can sit with a group
of characters for two years and not get bored. I'm
a reactive writer. I've been a journalist
most of my life. And I sort of lose interest after
a few days if new things and new angles don't keep
popping up for me.
How long does it take you to go from an essay idea
to the finished draft?
It depends on the length between deadlines. At one
time in my life, I was a columnist who wrote five
columns a week for a paper in Toronto. You can imagine
that kind of pressure. Now, of course, I write more
like every other week. I take a good long time.
Usually, I'll take a week of research and then a
week of writing. So for fifteen hundred, two thousand
words, there's a lot of preparation.
Of course, you can't really compare
the things I write to something that a newspaper
columnist has to do for a much shorter deadline.
I've won a couple prizes where I was competing against
newspaper columnists, and I was quick to say that
that really wasn't fair.
The difference between a column
and an essay is that the column is an immediate
reaction in which you respond to something that
happened that day or that week, and an essay is
something where you have the time and the space
to go back and bring in all the other things you
know and make the connections.
You won the H.L. Mencken Award a couple years ago
for your essays.
That was one I was proud of. He was one of my idols
when I was a young man.
People say that politically I
don't resemble Mencken, and that's true. But what
I got from Mencken is the theory that if it isn't
entertaining, if it doesn't challenge and engage
the reader, if it doesn't push him in the chest
a little bit and make him sit up, then he's not
going to finish it. An essay is short enough so
that a reader should be engaged and excited all
the way through.
Mencken's language was sort of
this lure, this bait, that brought in readers, and
I've always tried to do that myself.
I saw a quote that put you two in perspective. To
paraphrase, it suggested you considered it your
duty at some point in your career to anger every
single reader you ever had.
That's how they promoted my last book, Unarmed
and Dangerous--"Something to offend everyone."
And I suppose if you read that book carefully, you
will find something. But I want to say that this
new book, Cathedrals of Kudzu, is a much
more affectionate, much more positive book. I was
sort of surprised when I started putting the collection
together to find how much praise and gentleness
is in the book compared to the last one I published.