By Tina Whittle, SBF volunteer and Low Country Sisters in Crime member
In “On Being a Southern Writer,” Mary Hood describes herself as “an American writer, blooming where planted.” It is the South’s good fortune that Hood has put down roots in fertile ground throughout Georgia, capturing the essence of each landscape, the local cadences and rhythms, giving voice to a dynamic South that is growing and evolving.
Novelist and editor Pat Conroy will be introducing Hood before her Savannah Book Festival presentation on Saturday, February 14th, from 10:20—11:20 at the Jepson Center’s Neises Auditorium. She graciously shared some of her thoughts on the creative process, Savannah, and why she doesn’t write about the Heart o’ Dixie.
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Tina Whittle: This is your first time as a Savannah Book Festival author—what are you looking forward to most about the event?
Mary Hood: Savannah is a great book town, a wonderful, layered historic town, and it has live oaks and the ocean as well as river and marsh. So it is a good birding town. Plus, shrimp and grits. All those things will be gold star moments, but the best of it is the readers and writers I will see and hear.
Oh, and I will get my first glimpse of my new book, meet my publishers and the people who have been helping this whole project along through the press. And there’s Pat Conroy hisownself, who is bound to keep things interesting.
TW: I saw that he’ll be introducing your session on Saturday in his role as editor-at-large for Story River Books at the University of South Carolina Press, which is the fiction imprint publishing two of your new works. The first of those, Seam Busters, will be released just in time for the Festival. Can you tell us a little about it?
Mary Hood: Seam Busters is a novel about women in a small town in the South sewing the new camo for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan (especially the digital camo with such interesting properties to protect our troops against night vision devices). They are working in what was an old-time mill. The war has brought modern methods and projects to town and into these lives. Most of the workers are women. They are part of the war effort, and they take their work seriously. Irene, the main focus character, has said she would never “sew” again, but things have gotten tough, jobs have dried up as small factories have absented themselves from American soil in favor of overseas workers. She takes a job in the same plant she worked in years ago, and the young woman who took her chair when Irene left is now Irene’s strict supervisor. Seam Busters reveals the world of factory life and town life. Position is important in the hierarchy and rankings of workers in factory life and mill life. But place is more important, because it is home, no matter how fragile that is, or how far from where they started. They live by the bells and earn by the piece, so they keep busy. When trouble comes, they keep on sewing, until the kind of trouble comes that stops the whole world.
TW: According to Story River Books, they “will collectively present new perspectives on the dynamic, complex, and oft-contested past and present of a recognizable South Carolina for readers both within and beyond the Palmetto State.” How do your upcoming publications fit into that mission?
Mary Hood: I write about a lot of different lives and places. I rode to New York on the train, my first New York trip as a published writer. I looked out the windows at the back side of the little towns and I saw new angles, stark light, eerie shadows, Mills lit and thrumming, state after state as I rode north, the little mill towns quiet except for shipping and shift workers. The mills are gone now, and the towns are beginning to find ways to survive that. I wanted to write about the now, past that time when things were still humming on. “What is the matter?” they ask in Shakespeare’s plays. Same question but words mean something different in modern English, in modern America. I am not political. I am personal. I hope my stories live up to Story River’s agenda. All of us, being published there, will bring a part of it to the world. And I am glad to be a part of it.
TW: Do you have an ideal writing environment?
Mary Hood: So far, Planet Earth. With a window so I can hear, see, use my senses.
TW: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of writing? Do any of these activities find their way into your books?
Mary Hood: I like birds. I like gardens, especially intimate spaces such as walled courts, shady borders, ferns, little things, and seeing how others solve things in a natural looking way. I like history. Objects that refer to history, used in gardens. All these things make it into my work somehow, the same as they make it into my own garden.
TW: In your piece “On Being a Southern Writer,” you mention that you would have bloomed where planted, and that you happened to have been planted with a Southern exposure. What qualities does that bring to your writing, and to you as a writer?
Mary Hood: I got born into the South and the southern landscape in an era when family and subsistence farms were still part of the way things were. Not a back to the land movement, not survivalists getting off the grid. There were stories, everywhere. I listened. I wondered. I watched for new chapters. This any writer does. I was in Georgia. My brain and body were in Georgia, but my reading led me astray… I found I wanted to know more about anyone who would tell the story. I still do.
TW: You also said that because the people you write about are Southern, you write Southern. With so many definitions of “Southern” focusing on geography/setting, why do you instead focus on the people instead of the landscape?
Mary Hood: I think by now I have a less prickly reaction to this question. I write about ecotone. Naturalists can explain the concept better than I, but the thing is, in nature, ecotone is the band between two different kinds of habitat. It is the richest place to find life. It is the place where new things happen, surprises, needing new language and the waving of hands to explain, or the indrawn breath, the hush of shock and awe. I do not—I think—write about the “Heart o’ Dixie” so much as about the edges. I like to imagine that the heart is the heart, no matter where it is. Differences are about issues. Belonging is mostly made up of longing. Be is the least of it. The South has a lot of edges, rich ecotones, intercultural fraying and stiffening and loosening and absorption and crowding and isolation and the challenge of rising above. Of moving over, of opening wide, or at least a little, maybe the chain is still in the channel on the door, but there is a glimpse, an awareness, a response to a knock. Science reports that species form from isolation. But it is also true that new things happen, when that isolation ends; there are new challenges.
Look around. Listen. That’s not the sweep of a hoop skirt in the moonlight. That is not the tiny grinding of the weevil into the boll. It isn’t even the thud of an Agrarian turning over in his grave. It is life.
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A native of Brunswick, Mary Hood has lived in a handful of Georgia communities, including White, Douglasville, Sylvester and Woodstock. A graduate of Georgia State University, Hood initially worked as a library assistant before becoming a full-time writer.
The recipient of many awards, including the Robert Penn Warren Award and the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Hood is the author of novels and short story collections, including Familiar Heat, How Far She Went, and Venus is Blue, plus the upcoming Seam Busters and A Clear View of the Southern Sky.
Tina Whittle is a crime fiction writer living and working in Southeast Georgia. Her Tai Randolph/Trey Seaver mysteries have garnered starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. The fourth book in this Atlanta-based series—Deeper Than the Grave—was released in November from Poisoned Pen Press.